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

November 29, 2014

CR Sunday Interview: Zak Sally



The cartoonist, publisher and musician Zak Sally remains one of my favorite interviews in all of comics. A few weeks back, Sally released through his La Mano 21 the latest issue of his series Recidivist, along with one of the all-time declarations how we would prefer his comic be read. Several things distinguish this work from past Sally releases, but whereas earlier works from the Minneapolis-based artist seemed like a refutation of the comics that came before them, this new book seems like a grand summary of his skills as a maker of images as well as a pressing statement on his thoughts and concerns about making art more generally.

We spoke less than 24 hours ago, on a crappy phone recording system that produced a barely audible exchange. It seemed appropriate. I edited a tiny bit for flow, but not as much as you'd think, for the same reason -- I wanted to catch the spirit of our exchange. Please consider buying Recidivist IV, one of the comics of 2014. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: The bulk of this conversation will be about Recidivist IV, but I thought we might start out talking about Autoptic, the comics festival you're a big part of that is held in Minneapolis. Autoptic is scheduled for a second time this August after debuting in 2013. That first show received a lot of attention for a number of reasons, including and maybe primarily the PFC workshop that took place the week leading into it. Is it okay if we start there?



SPURGEON: How is the show different for you this time around?

SALLY: It's a two-day show instead of a one-day show this time. We're going to expand the music a bit, spotlight the music more this time than we did last time. It's a Saturday and Sunday show so Saturday night will be a show with some national acts.

All of the other things are sort of the same. We're going to partner with Association ChiFouMi to do the PFC (Pierre Feuille Ciseaux) again. We've nailed down 95 percent of the participants in that. I think we're going to be able to announce that probably sometime next week.

SPURGEON: So remind me... was 2013 the first time that you went through that program? Or had you been one of the people that had done one in France? Did you do the 2013 one?

SALLY: No, the first one I was involved in I want to say... 2011? I went over there. That was actually the first time I hung out with Anders Nilsen extensively. The American artists there were me and Anders and Sarah Glidden. That's when I became friends with June Misserey, who spearheaded the whole thing from the beginning and who's one of my favorite people whom I've met in comics. That's kind of why it came over here. For some reason the French version was shitcanned after the year we did it. [Spurgeon laughs] What's that?

SPURGEON: I'm just laughing at the wonderful word, "shitcanned." [Sally laughs] That's a favorite word. [laughter]

SALLY: Yeah, I'm fond of that one, too. So then that happened and then Autoptic started coming together. MCAD, the college I was teaching at, started talking about holding some sort of comics symposium, so it all started coming together at the same time. We just figured out how we could wrap them all up together.

The first Autoptic went really, really, really, really well. The first American PFC went really well, as well.

SPURGEON: What was interesting to me about that is that I heard from a lot of cartoonist who participated, they all called life-changing in a career reorientation sort of way. Maybe not quite as dramatic as that sounds but something definitely real, something that changed the way they look at what they do. And what was fascinating about that is that these were caretoonists at different points in their artistic journey, and yet they all had the same sort of reaction. What was it about that experience that was universal for people, do you think?

SALLY: That's the experience I had when I went over there. I feel like I've told this story a bunch of times, but when I went over there at the invite of a stranger, I thought "This is not my thing, but I'll take a free trip. It sounds interesting, I'll try it out." When I got there and did out, that's the experience I had. It was pretty life-changing for me. I think it was because... it's because... in a large part it's because of June. [laughs] I feel that a lot of cartoonists feel by necessity that this is something you do by yourself. That you kind of sequester yourself away, and all of the processing you do is pretty internal. When you get around a bunch of other cartoonists who kind of feel the same way and you're able...

When you describe PFC, it sounds sort of academic. You're going to go in there, and you're going to run OuBaPo-based experiments to enable collaboration. It sounds very rote and academic, but you get this space with a bunch of cartoonists, and you lock them up, and you say to them, "Hey everybody, we're going to come up with shit together." And the weirder the thing is, the better. You have the freedom do to whatever you want including the freedom not to be successful. It being successful and publishable should be the last thing on your mind.

I think for a lot of cartoonists, that's not a space they get to be in. You get used to being by yourself in this.

SPURGEON: Even when connections are made, it seems a lot of them are collegial and social rather than creative. Or even commercial.


SPURGEON: They're infrequently creative. How you engage your work is very important to you, Zak. Is the PFC experience powerful to cartoonists because of the corrective element of having these peer-to-peer relationships brought into a creative sphere?

SALLY: Yeah, I think that's the whole thing. I hope I'm not speaking out of turn. But John P. being there in 2013, all of these people were like, "Oh my God, I get to draw with John P." And John P. being like, "Oh my God, all these people draw better than me." [Spurgeon laughs] You know what I mean? All of the people there not in awe of their own process but the other people there in awe of each other. It's a very cartoonist thing, to be aware that everyone has that to a degree. It levels out the playing field, in that every single one of you does something that's pretty amazing. There's times when you feel insecure about what you do, but that's not how everybody else feels about it.

Even Jaime [Hernandez] got up there. I was lucky enough to curate a show for Jaime, he was a special guest. My thought was that this was the farthest thing of being of interest to Jaime... anything snooty. This thing sounds kind of snooty. Formal experimentation. But he went up to that room and he was like, "This is awesome." Then he sat down and did a drawing and everyone in the room started weeping.

SPURGEON: [laughs]

SALLY: You know what I mean? He was really charged up by the proceedings. It's difficult to describe how it works, but it works.

SPURGEON: The other thing you heard about that first show is that, well, it was a first show. The wider community didn't have the reaction in terms of audience and people buying that one might have hoped for. Tell me about developing about that part of the show, getting people to look forward to a show, and going, and buying, and participating. That seems to me a secret ingredient to the great shows, developing that audience over time.

SALLY: One thing we're working on this year... from the very beginning what we've wanted to do with Autoptic and what we still want to do and where we're pushing it is to not make this a comics show. We want to make a show with comics in it and obviously the people putting it together are from that world. And maybe that's the focus of it. But I think all of us would like it to be, I know I would like the umbrella to be a lot more broad. Not a niche comics-for-comics people. But more the idea of art in whatever form people might dig. I think that was difficult to put across for that first show. People have the idea it's going to be about this one thing. And we're trying to say, "Yes it's about that one thing but we hope it's about these other things as well." There's a place for that. It's a seriously literate town.

I love comics show. But I don't go to as many as I used to because I feel that in many ways they've become a closed loop. I want shows that bring in normal people. You know? I don't even know what I mean by normal. My optimal thing is that someone with a marginal knowledge of comics or of design would walk into this thing and be overwhelmed by the breadth of what they're seeing. They might walk in and be into Michael DeForge's stuff and walk out intrigued by Dunetree Rat Collective. That's exciting to me.

SPURGEON: One wonderful thing about the arts scenes in places in the Midwest is that there's frequently an audience different than industry members and other artists. You can build a following of people who are into consuming art of a certain kind without wanting to make it, which is a significant blessing of those places.

SALLY: I've noticed that. It feels a little like that, like everybody is selling stuff to one another.

SPURGEON: Passing around the same $20 bill.

SALLY: Yeah. And that's great in a certain way. That's a bunch of people coming together and sharing what they worked on. In a way, that's a great thing. But it also creates a closed loop. We're all just talking to each other and selling to each other. That can be unhealthy. So we're trying to push that at Autoptic this time around. We got 1500 people through the door the first time around. We all did our best. We learned quite a bit from that first one. We're hoping to double that with this one.


SPURGEON: I read a bunch of interviews from various points of your career for this interview, Zak. The impulse going into Recidivist IV... was that a different creative impulse at work for you? Because past projects, the language is very much about pushing away from previous works, or pushing past certain ways of doing things or looking at things. And with this one, your language seems more about seizing on something that relates to the entirety of your work, that this is a piece very much in continuity with others you've done, or at least in a certain way it is. This project brings in everything. That might be total projection on my part. Was the impulse different?

SALLY: Yeah, very. [pause] Yeah. Very.

I think I had a come to Jesus moment with comics and what I do and how I do it. It was relatively brutal, which I'm sure doesn't surprise you at all. [Spurgeon laughs] I realized that... hm. I kind of realized that I'm fucking done. [pause] I'm done wondering where I do or don't fit into the world of comics as far as what people know about me, or don't know about me, or what success I've had or not had. Where I fit into the comics landscape or continuum. It was a little frightening and brutal, but I think I came out of it on the other end... feeling like I'm going to do exactly what I want to do and how I want to do it because that's what I'm best at.

I'm not even sure that what I do anymore fits within the world of comics. [laughs] And rather than be concerned about that, I think that means nobody out there is doing exactly what I'm doing. I'm going to be proud of it and do that as hard as I can.

SPURGEON: There's a fuck it element to the self-published Sammy, in particular, but it's oriented differently. That was about finding the kind of comics you want to do, that you felt you should be doing. A baseline. When you started talking about Recidivist IV, it seems like there's nothing there for you to push back against. It's untethered; there's no relationship to anything other than your own impulses from which you could push against. Is that a fair way to make that distinction?

I told a couple of people I was interviewing you, and they both wondered out loud if this wasn't a part of a cycle for you, that's you're constantly reinventing yourself. And I told them I thought this was different. It feels different, anyway.

SALLY: I hope I'm not repeating myself. I think I've ended up in a place, a very specific place, that wasn't on purpose. I was being led around by nose by my interests. I was involved with 'zines and I was involved with music, and that led me to buying a printing press. La Mano took me places in terms of making stuff by hand and what that means. To me... I always viewed them as separate. I did Sammy Vol. 1 printed on my own press just because of my peculiar trajectory through all this stuff. But in the act of it, it was really interesting in that it involved questions like if an artist is making the work, and then printing it, and publishing, going through all of the production stuff, that's interesting in terms of -- I don't want to sound high-faluting because I really was being led around by my nose -- how we think about a published book. We're used to published works looking a certain way because they're mass produced. And this was that, because that's the form it's taking. But there's a way this is thrown into question, because in this day and age if a mass-media object is made personally it's not not a print-maker's object... can we talk about that in different terms? In the end, Sammy was just a weird-looking book and I'm not sure people know what questions I was asking. So with this new Recidivist I decided to push those questions ten times as far.

That's really what the new Recidivist is about, and in some ways it's really interesting to me. Why we value these physical objects and people making stuff. What's the power of people making stuff that you and I and all of us value?

SPURGEON: There's a legacy with that in alt-comics. You conducted an interview last year with Peter Bagge, and he talked about encountering Robert Crumb's comics for the first time and being blown away by the obvious handcrafted nature of the creative end of it, right down to the hand-lettering. This allowed him a connection with the artist he didn't have with other comics-makers. The idea of a person doing the entire project, and connecting to it on that level. It seems that's something that's always engaged you. The last part, someone reading a work, is at the end of a continuum on which this art exists. It exists for you, and you're active in all of these ways, and then it finally goes to this reader. They bring their own meanings to it. And whereas past projects see you intrude on what used to be the middleman of mass production, now you're going even further to be more of a presence in that reading experience.

I wonder if this isn't something of a conflict for you. You seem wholly in awe that audiences have this relationship to the work, but you also seem like you're not entirely comfortable with the attention that comes to you as a result. There's a reluctance to provide of yourself through the art while at the same time you're compulsive about doing so.

SALLY: Do you feel that way with this one?

SPURGEON: Well... look. You wrote this amazing mini-essay, this statement, that's still on your site when you first offered this new issue for sale. And in that essay, you seem to be slamming the expectations that people bring to an engagement with art. But while that would ostensibly and logically free up the reader to a variety of different reactions, in a way this essay is also this absolute bid for a specific context for which you'd prefer this work to be read. It's a controlling issue, too. [Sally laughs] It's like you're making this argument for a very specific context while rejecting the idea of context. Exactly how comfortable are you with people bringing their own impulses into their relationships with your art?

SALLY: I... I have to go back and re-read that essay. [laughter]

For me with this book... I wonder if the way you were reading that -- or the way that I put it across -- was that with this new thing I really wanted to draw some lines in the sand. [sighs] Yeah, I am controlling the context of this new one. I want people to understand that this isn't like other books and it's not like other books for very specific reasons. There's a ton of intentionality behind why this book is this way. I am incredibly happy to engage with any and everyone that wants to engage the book on that level. I wanted to be very clear about what they're engaging with. It's like, "Either you're going to engage me..." I know in earlier times I was uncomfortable with that end result of that engagement, that one-to-one relationship. [slight pause] I'm not forming my thoughts correctly. It might have been that I was trying to split the difference between "I'm making this thing that I'm selling" and... there's a level of commerce and there's a level of personal engagement. The reticence might have from that. With this one it's like there's a personal level of engagment. If you're not into that, it's totally... fine. That's good. I'm happy we can say no. This isn't a normal book, therefore I'm not interested on that level. I wanted to say, "This is me, all the way down the line." And at the end of the line there's you and me and that's it.


SPURGEON: Do you have any sense of how people are reacting to it so far? Are you hearing back? Would not hearing back make you happy?

SALLY: I'm hearing back a little bit. The fun thing I'm going to do on the phone right now with you is to take this experiment a little further... I'm going to put the entire contents up for free next week.

SPURGEON: Oh, wow.

SALLY: I'll offer anyone who bought the thing and feels ripped off a 90 percent refund.

SPURGEON: Do you feel you can get close to the printed experience on-line?

SALLY: That's my point! [laughter] That's the thing I'm really interested in. There's a bunch of talk as to how I made this thing and why I made this thing, more than the content of the work. Which is totally fine. That's what this book is about, why you make something and what that means. But I don't want that to go into a closed loop of you having to pay $20 to experience the content. That kind of goes against my indie-guy thing. I think that's interesting... I want people to read it, and if you can do that for free... if that's what you want, that's cool with me. I think the content of the thing... the ideas are free but if you want the work... you know what I mean? The physical object I slaved over. I want that to be something that when you get it in the mail you think, "Holy shit." The care and attention that goes into making a physical object... the things I have like that, that I treasure as a piece of personal art, I absolutely treasure them. So I want to draw a distinction between the content and this thing. Which do you value?

SPURGEON: I think that's at the heart of a lot of how people are thinking about comics, now. You know, you used the word experience... is that another way to come at this book? There's an experience that you had in the work you put into it, there's that experience you have, but looking at myself and the people I know that I've read it, all of them talk about the immersive reading of it. It's not there as a vehicle to get across a certain number of story points, or an idea, as much as it's there for you to have those several minutes reading it. It is its own idea.


SPURGEON: So you're interested in both of those aspects, it sounds like. That seems new for you. I think of you in terms of these really strong narrative-based comics you've been doing. This seems a clean break with that. I wonder if that was always there, or if that's come up more recently.

SALLY: That again is the world leading me by my nose. For me it's been a slow process from 'zines til now, just because of the things I believe in, the DIY aesthetic and that whole thing of my wanting to make these things by hand. I don't know exactly why, but that's become important to me. When we talk about the comic shows... the way the world has changed since I was a kid is that now we have more of everything. We have more objects. We have more information. The object used to be the way you got the content, by necessity. That's the way you had to disseminate the information you wanted to get out there. That's no longer the case. Five years from now, that will be even less of the case. You know what I mean?


SALLY: With music, with comics and all of this stuff, what is that experience and what are the things that are specific to that experience that are important to us? There's a lot of awesome comics that I get right now. They're awesome, but I know exactly what they are when I get them. I don't want to say that's boring, but to me... to me there are so many questions brought up by the way the world is going. This new Recidivist is just me asking those questions of myself and of everybody else. I wanted to make an extremely fucked-up object. I didn't know what it was going to be, and I didn't want anyone picking it up to know what it was going to be. They and I were going to have to figure out what to do with this thing as I was making it and they were reading it. Hopefully that would be in a way that's worth our time. I wanted to make something you couldn't get any other way. This is the experience. When we were talking earlier about me trying to control the context -- I want to do that. I want to set something up where I can say, "This is a specific thing for a specific reason." I didn't want to spend any time talking about what it's not.

SPURGEON: Sure. [pause] Huh.

SALLY: [laughs]


SPURGEON: Let me ask you this. I really liked the images in this book. I thought it was the most visually arresting set of images I've ever seen from you.

SALLY: Oh. Thanks, man.

SPURGEON: One thing that strikes me about your career is that you have yet to give yourself the chance to settle into a place. You don't have the chops of a Jaime --

SALLY: What did you just say?

SPURGEON: That you don't have the natural ability of a Jaime Hernandez, let alone the refined natural ability of Jaime.

SALLY: God, I thought you said I did.

SPURGEON: No, I'm not insane. [Sally laughs] But I wonder if the way you work has been beneficial to marshalling the talents you have because you've never given yourself over to facile commercial considerations. Is there a virtue to constantly making yourself uncomfortable, Zak? [laughs] You say the world dictates these choices, but your strategy seems... it seems harder than most people's. Is that part of the point, though, to never let yourself settle into a groove for a considerable length of time? Is that how you see the responsibility of art, to not give yourself a break that way.

SALLY: I think that is the point of being artist. At least for me. I don't want go to far down the psychological road, but I do think I make things more difficult for myself, but I'm not going to rake myself over the coals for it. I think that I'm at the point in my life where rather than view that as a negative, I think it's really important. I think it's important for artists to do that. That's our job, right? To put ourselves into uncomfortable territory, to try things, to dig into something, whether or not they know it'll work.

Our conversation just now about the new Recidivist, even the earlier questions about PFC, it all sounds kind of academic and high-handed and conceptual. But it's not! For me these are really interesting questions, and questions that concern me on a daily basis. Why do we make art? What is its place now? What form should art take? How do people take it in? That's important to me. That's more important to me than whether or not people thought I did a good drawing or even if they thought what I did was successful on all levels.

For me, Sammy The Mouse is old comics. I feel comfortable doing what I'm doing there and how I'm doing it. I don't want there to be any confusion as to what people are taking in or how they're reading it. It's a comic book story. I don't think everything should be like that. I think there has to be a lot of spaces where people are working and asking questions of themselves and their art. What is this thing? Why does it exist? Why is it important? Why is it not important.

I don't know, that stuff is important to me. Not just comics, across everything I've ever done in my life. I can't believe the shit that's going on in music right now, the lack of creativity and figuring out how that works. Across the board.

SPURGEON: Do you see this same impulse in other cartoonists? Do you feel people agree with you on what seem to be pretty foundational matters? The ideas that you're offering in terms of the responsibility of being an artist, do you feel alone in the pursuit of those ideas?

SALLY: [pause] No. No. [slight pause, then emphatically] No.

This might refer to that break I had earlier. I don't really worry about that anymore. I'm fine with saying, "This is what I do." Either I'm going to quit or I'm going to figure out why it's important to me. I really think I figure it out. There are artists in all different sorts of fields that I feel are doing that. But that's also my point. When I said at the beginning I don't know where I fit in in comics anymore, I think that's fine. I'm totally fine with being a weirdo. You know? Everybody does what they do. This is what I do. If that's something you're interested in, that's awesome, I couldn't be happier to go in with you on that. Couldn't be happier. If it isn't your thing, that's fine, too.

The stakes are both too high and too low to concern myself with that shit anymore. The difference between the best-selling indie cartoonist and me is a few thousand books, and you're still not making a living. So why not do exactly what the fuck you want to do, exactly the way you want it to be done?


* Recidivist IV, Zak Sally, La Mano, Mini-Comic Formatted Comic, 2014, $20 + $2.25 postage.
* Autoptic


* photo provided by the cartoonist
* Autoptic logo art
* photos provided by the artist, including one startling image from the book itself and other photos of its creation; thanks, Zak



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