Home > CR Interviews
CR Holiday Interview #3—Sean Ford
posted December 19, 2012
I decided to talk to Sean Ford
not because I knew a whole lot about him but because I didn't. I read his book Only Skin
when it came out, and enjoyed several aspects of it. The book struck me less as one of those bolt-from-the-blue debuts than as an early work of someone likely to stick around for a while, making a lot of quality comics along the way. I'd spoken to Ford at shows, and found him thoughtful and articulate. He also seemed to be one of those young cartoonists maybe on the older end of that general group, by which I mean he's now right around 30 as opposed to still being in his early- or mid-20s. I think there's a lot to be learned about Ford's generation of comics-makers, a great deal of it very intriguing; I look forward to speaking to as many of them as possible. It turns out that Ford is also well-connected in comics more generally.
This was the first interview for this year's series I was able to complete, so I'm thankful to all of Ford's teachers at The Center For Cartoon Studies
and his former high-powered internship supervisors for making sure that he became one of those cartoonists that hands things in ahead of time. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON Sean, I know almost nothing about you, except I believe that maybe you're a New York native.
I'm not actually a New York native, I was born in Dover, New Jersey
and grew up in Danbury, Connecticut
-- pretty droll, samey places to grow up -- but I've always been in the Tri-State area and specifically in New York City
since 1998, other than the two years I was in Vermont
SPURGEON: Gotcha. My bad. Can you talk to me a bit about your general background, where comics fit into your life as you were growing up?
My earliest exposure to comics was probably my mom giving me some of those old Peanuts
paperbacks she had growing up. And of course Calvin and Hobbes
, Far Side
, etc in the morning paper -- and I would buy collections of that stuff at Walden Books when I found it. At some point I picked up Uncanny X-Men
issue #246 off the newsstand and I instantly became hooked on the X-Men
and would buy all the Byrne/Claremont issues I could find at tag sales and in back issue bins and stuff.
Not long after that, I found the trade paperbacks First Classics was making of Eastman and Laird's TMNT
and bought them all. I started drawing my own versions of TMNT
comics around then. I showed some of them to Mark Texeira
at a signing at my local comics store and he told me I shouldn't trace other people's work and I got really upset because I hadn't traced it. [Spurgeon laughs] I became a fan of Marvel
right around the time the Image guys started, so I followed all that stuff and like a lot of people, got burned out on it pretty quickly. Around the mid-'90s a lot of the comics shops in my area started closing and I wound up being distracted by the typical high school stuff, so I read fewer comics for a few years.
Like anyone else who grew up in Connecticut, my early goal in life was basically to find a way to get out of Connecticut. I wanted to be some kind of artist and was still drawing comics in high school, but for some reason I don't think I thought comics was the kind of art I could make a living at. [laughs] My family life was sort of a struggle. My dad was sick and couldn't work after a certain point and we didn't have a lot of money. I was working after school all through high school at some really bad jobs like Baskin Robbins
, the Sports Authority
and a hospital coffee shop, to try and help out with costs at home while hoping to save enough for college.
I got somewhat lucky that my SAT scores were good enough to get me a scholarship to go to NYU
's art program. I'm not sure I even knew anything about NYU, but I knew I really wanted to move to New York and find out about a larger world. Growing up in Connecticut there was a sense I was missing out on everything cool, I felt like I needed to go to NY to find something. In school, I focused on drawing and sculpture -- I would try to work comics into assignments whenever possible, but NYU had a pretty conceptual art program so comics were met with confusion or some level of disappointment. So I wound up making a bunch of conceptual art and models of movie sets and small worlds at school. And I liked that stuff, I was actually really interested in the narratives and stories that went along with the models and worlds -- it was essentially set-building or world-building for stories I wasn't getting to tell. I actually tried to do the New York fine art world for a while and even had a few shows before getting kind of sick of it. It took me a while to decide the narratives were what I wanted to focus on.
SPURGEON Am I right in thinking that you discovered alt-/indy- comics independently of comics themselves -- by which I mean you were already a fan of comics and then discovered these other kind of comics? What was discovering those comics like; what comics do you remember having an impact on you?
Yeah, my first part-time job in New York was working at St. Mark's Comics
, because it was right around the corner from the art building at NYU. I started at St Mark's more or less on a whim, thinking I might catch up on X-Men
or check out Preacher
. But it was there that I found Eightball
and Love & Rockets
and Paul Pope's THB
comics and the ACME Novelty Library
minis buried next to Horny Biker Sluts
in the back of the store. That changed things for me a lot. I had no idea comics like that were being made and it was really exciting.
I again tried making my own comics at that point, but it felt hard to know where to start or how to enter the community so I didn't feel like I had any kind of outlet for them. I guess I probably didn't even think there was a community available to me. In 2001, though, I got an internship working for Peggy Burns
in the publicity department at DC Comics
and she opened my eyes to a lot of great comics and introduced me to a lot of great comics people -- both at DC and in the indie comics world in New York. In 2002, after I graduated NYU, Peggy helped get me a job at DC and while there I worked with a bunch of really great people, including Leon Avelino
. Through Leon I met Barry Matthews
. Leon and Barry told me about a lot of great comics and we had a lot of shared interests in novels and movies and they also told me about MoCCA
. One of the first MoCCAs I went to, I think 2003, is when I would say that I felt like I found out about the comics community at large. That was the show where Kramers Ergot 4
came out and it was kind of a mind-blowing experience. It made it seem like those indie comics were not only up and coming, but already their own full and very vibrant world. But I still had no real idea of how to access that world.
SPURGEON You've kind of talked about this, but at what point did comics become something you thought you might do?
I was sort of continually trying to figure out how to make comics and how it could be something I could do. A few years after graduating NYU, having abandoned the fine art thing and still working at DC Comics, I had literally hundreds of pages of thumbnails and notes and character designs for a graphic novel but no confidence to start it. I had always had problems finishing or even starting comics -- I think part of it was not knowing how to start and part of it was knowing I wasn't ready or good enough to do what I wanted to do. Or at least to attempt what I wanted to attempt. Working at DC was really good, but it was one of those instances of being so close to what I wanted to do, but not actually doing it, that is was kind of maddening and disheartening.
I don't know that he even remembers it, but one day Dylan Horrocks
was in the office -- he was writing Batgirl
at the time, I think -- and someone told him I was a big fan of Hicksville
, so he stopped by my office and showed me his sketchbooks for Atlas
-- I feel like I saw breakdowns and thumbnails for hundreds of pages of Atlas
that I keep waiting to come out. I want to say that was in late 2005, maybe even early 2006, so right before I decided to apply to CCS. He was very generous and encouraging and talking to him was really instrumental in my decision to go through with applying to CCS. I don't even know if he knows that.
Going to CCS was totally invaluable in giving me that confidence and giving me that time to get better -- like not great, but good enough that I felt like I could finish a comic and try to get better with the next one. So I would say when I actually made the commitment to go to CCS was when I thought of comics as something I was going to focus on pursuing, rather than something I would kind of struggle with in private. I think I'm a late-bloomer in a lot of ways. I think it might take me longer to have certain self-realizations and get to what for other people would be really obvious points. I had been obsessed with comics since I was eight years old and always hovering around the comics world. I even interned at Harris Comics at one point! But it took me until I was 26 years old and at a sort of breaking point to finally say, "Okay, this is something I need to do."
SPURGEON You were part of one of the first three or four classes at CCS. How did you end up there? What made you decide to make that significant investment in that very specific institution?
I was in the second class at CCS. I had heard about the school from Peggy, who was at D+Q
by that point. Her partner Tom Devlin
was teaching some classes at the school. I asked her about it, read the James Sturm
interview in The Comics Journal
and decided to take the train up to White River Junction
to check it out a few months into the school's very first semester. I liked what I saw up there and wound up applying for the second year the school was open.
I had looked into SCAD
's graduate comics program a little as my parents had moved to Savannah by then, but CCS seemed to be more a fit for what I wanted to do in comics -- focusing on longer, more involved projects, focusing on writing and drawing and production. And I really just needed a way to escape NY for a little while. At the point I decided to apply I was kind of stalled on making comics or any kind of art and had just gone through a horrible break-up and was disassembling that life and debating getting tested for a genetic disease I was sure I had. So going to the school was partly about trying to finally find some momentum with comics and partly about trying to escape some personal trauma.
SPURGEON I'm not sure I've talked to a whole lot of CCS graduates, but can you speak specifically to what that place meant to your development as a cartoonist, particularly what you might have received during that experience that you wouldn't have if you had, say, just moved to Portland and started making comics at the coffee house? What was the primary value of that experience for you?
The two years I spent at CCS were hugely important to me in a lot of different ways. For one thing, it was the first time I met a lot of people who thought about comics the same way I did and were struggling with the same issues I was. A big reason, I think, to go to a graduate program, like any MFA writing or design program or whatever, is to meet your peer group. For some people, I think they're maybe more socially well-adjusted or able to just find that peer group on their own somehow -- maybe in that coffee shop in Portland [Spurgeon laughs] or maybe online on twitter or tumblr or deviant art or whatever. I had never been able to find a community in New York, as pathetic as that sounds. And I didn't have the confidence or really even the know-how to put my art online. I lucked into a really good community up in Vermont that, at least for the time I was there, seemed perfect and fit exactly what I needed. It really felt like I had found a golden ticket to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory
or Hicksville or something.
And I know that there is some backlash against the very idea of CCS that I've heard over the years and it's a backlash I can kind of understand and have certainly shared on certain occasions. I've heard from a few people, "A school for comics? what do you need to go to school for? just make comics." But I think you could say the same thing about being a writer or a graphic designer or any creative pursuit. Obviously there's this notion that you can't teach someone how to do a creative thing. But I think on the other hand there is a ton of technical knowledge and know-how you need to make comics, stuff about which I was completely clueless before I went there. I had never so much as opened Photoshop or InDesign. I had no idea how to color anything. I had no idea how to use an Ames Lettering Guide
. I had no idea how to ink with a nib or a brush. I had no idea how to scan art. I picked up a ton of technical skill and know-how there which fed into my comics process and which I use on a daily basis now. It basically allowed me to get my day job doing book design, too.
Learning about the history of comics, being able to put your work in a context is important, too. There are a ton of things that can go wrong on a comics page that might take years for you to realize on your own, but someone like James Sturm, Jason Lutes
or Steve Bissette
can point out to you in five minutes. So, I think there were a ton of technical and craft and knowledge-type things that I needed and definitely picked up at CCS. But again, I think finding the community was most important for me. And obviously there is more than one way to find your community, especially with the internet and stuff. I'm just prone to being very shy and withdrawn so I'm not sure I would've been able to find that community any other way.
SPURGEON: Before we get too far away from it, tell me about interning for Peggy Burns -- she's become a vital cog in that world of alternative comics in which you operate. Is there anything about her you think other people may not know, may not appreciate?
I had to re-read that question several times. At first I was worried you were trying to get me kicked off the D+Q holiday card list.
SPURGEON: [laughs] I like Peggy very much, I'm just not sure how many people know her, or have worked with her directly.
Peggy is great. I assume everyone is aware of the impact she's had at Drawn and Quarterly. She's made such a tremendous and positive impact in the way comics are covered and received in places that may not have ever sniffed a comic before. Just that eight-page [Yoshihiro] Tatsumi review in the New York Times
should be reason enough to stop and pause -- has that ever happened before? Peggy has a tremendous ability to make the things she cares about or puts her time behind seem like really worthwhile and important events in comics. There's not a lot of false advertising or anything, just sincere and legitimate reasons why things should be given attention.
Peggy was also extremely patient with me as an intern -- I was possibly her worst ever -- and has been a constant touchstone whenever I've changed paths since DC. I feel lucky that she has been so kind and generous with me. I probably don't deserve it. But she's great. As is Tom. Anyone who needs to learn about the current world of indie comics could do far far worse than to spend an evening bending Peggy and Tom's ears. They are two of the smartest.
SPURGEON: While we're going backwards a bit, you also mentioned DC Comics, and your time there. I've visited DC a couple of times and I found the office vibe there interesting, at once almost exactly like some of the other comics offices in that it's almost all people with a real passion for comics, but also sort of corporate and distancing. What do you take away from that experience now? Is that a world to which you still have any sort of affinity, to which you could return?
I feel like my time at DC was incredibly lucky. As a somewhat-aimless college graduate, it helped me focus what I wanted to do -- it helped me figure out the kind of comics I wanted to make and also showed me some of the pitfalls of trying to make that happen in the corporate comics world. And I was also able to meet some truly great people who I still keep in contact with. The people who are willing to sacrifice for DC are what makes it great. Unfortunately, there seems to be a powers-that-be kind of thing that holds back the really innovative ideas. I think Paul Levitz was actually a great leader at DC. He was conservative, but he truly loved and respected the material. He would have never done Watchmen Babies. Never. Even though he was well aware the money was there.
There are plenty of people like that at DC and unfortunately they seem to get overruled by people serving movie studios or bottom lines. I would never go back, I'm sorry to say. In spite of the fact that there are still a good number of people there who do their jobs with complete integrity. Those folks are just outgunned, unfortunately. There's also some really arcane rule on the books at DC that says that people who work for the company are not allowed to make their own comics, a rule they seemingly enforce depending on whether or not they like you enough to look the other way. So, I loved my time there and I'll keep in touch with my friends there and I'll never work for them again.
SPURGEON: Let's get back on point. Talk to me a bit more about some of the insight you received from teachers. Did Steve or Jason or James point something out to you in five minutes you might not have learned otherwise? Steve and Jason at least have very public reputations in the professional community that seems to me to match up with their reputation as teachers... is there anything that was surprising about your work with anyone there? It seems from the quote that Steve provided that he might have been someone with whom you found an aesthetic connection.
Steve, Jason and James are all obviously incredibly accomplished cartoonists and each has his own insight into so many different parts of the process. There was a time when James just showed us how he ruled out the lettering on a page with his Ames Guide and a few of us just looked at each other like "That's
how you use that thing?" I mean, maybe that's stupid or maybe you could find it on Youtube, but I think I just respond better to that sort of in-person moment. I didn't know anything about Jason or Steve past their comics -- which I greatly admired -- when I started taking classes with them and both of them were just completely generous and patient with their time. I'm not sure I can think of specifics, but there are just countless instances where Steve or Jason would look at a panel I'd drawn and point out a major flaw that I knew on some level was there but maybe thought I could get away with. Mainly like perspective issues or story-pacing issues. All sorts of things.
I do feel like I had a certain aesthetic connection with Steve -- or a similar sense of humor or love of certain horror movies or something. He looked over a lot of my thumbnails and made a ton of suggestions for Only Skin
, some of which I took and some of which I didn't, but I think being able to spitball with he and a few other folks up there really helped me gain momentum on the project. Whenever I get back up to WRJ I try to catch up with Steve, I think he's a fantastic person and teacher and CCS would not really exist in the same way without him.
SPURGEON: I want to get to you a bit more about the community aspect. How close do you remain to the students and the other people in the White River comics community even now that you're gone? What is the nature of that connection -- is it just that you share this particularly intense experience, is it that you feel a sense of pride in your common schooling...? It's pretty clear to us that are starting to see the bunch of you interact at these shows that there's a connection there, but I'm not sure we understand how it's different, say, than the one I have with the people that were in Seattle in 1994 when I started working in comics.
Well, I mean, you guys had Cobain
. And also Starbucks
. So I'm not sure we can touch that. I'm actually really jealous of anyone who gets to live in Seattle.
Hmm, I'm not sure. I think it's different every year with the school. It's weird that I'll meet people now who are at the school and have no idea I went there. I hope that doesn't sound arrogant or anything, but I'm used to the idea of the school feeling so small that it feels like a family. Maybe it's too big for that now. But I definitely feel a certain communion and shared experience with the folks I went to school with. Even a certain amount of pride for their achievements.
I think White River Junction is just so isolated that it breeds a more intense level of attachment and community than something in New York or Portland would. There is really Not. Much. Else. To. Do. So everyone makes comics and hangs out with one another and talks about comics. If you want to see a concert you can drive 100 miles to Northampton
. If you want a city you can drive three hours or something to Boston. Not much else. So you draw with each other, drink, play ping pong, drink, etc etc. We basically all went through a sort of ringer of comics boot camp mixed with The Shining
together and came out the other side. So I think there's a lot of love and mutual respect at the end of the tunnel. I don't know if every class winds up having that level of attachment, but our class certainly did.
I still keep in very close contact with about seven or eight of my classmates -- and again, I think that's just a kind of thing where a lot of us came of age, in terms of comics, at the same time and probably we influenced how that happened for each other. And I think part of the way that communion plays out in terms of the comics world at large is seeing us interact together at shows. And hopefully that's not too gross for everyone else, but I think it's just like how a lot of people in comics only see some of their favorite people in the world three or four times a year for comics shows and those are like reunions.
SPURGEON: To follow up on something, seeing as you're close to a certain segment of mostly same-age cartoonists and comics-people, do you feel like there's a group aesthetic, ways of approaching comics that are favored by younger comics-makers? Do you know work from a young cartoonist when you see it? For that matter, is there a CCS aesthetic, do you think?
Hmm, I honestly don't know if would say there's an over-reaching aesthetic that's generational in any way. I think there are so many different ways of making comics and being able to get them out that everyone tends to find their own way -- going back to that question about DC -- I mean what young cartoonist in their right mind feels like they need to work in a style suitable to get work at DC at this point? I think what we'll see more of is smaller publishers or micro-publishers curating their own mini house-styles the way Oily Comics
have. And by curating that house-style, they're presenting their vision of what comics is or should be. And I think you're seeing a lot of different visions, especially if you expand up a level or two to include NoBrow
, Secret Acres
I think what a lot of the cartoonists in my general age bracket are dealing with is this weird flux between being able to reach a larger audience than ever maybe and also knowing that there is almost no money involved in any such endeavor. Which I think is good and freeing in some ways, if you can get past it being kind of demoralizing. And I think you're seeing a lot of artists being able to blossom within those lower expectations. I always hear that when the economy is bad it's a good time to make art and I kind of think that's what comics is seeing right now. With almost no pressure to make money off what they make and because they feel like there's nothing more worthwhile to do, young cartoonists are blossoming in inspiring directions. I think there's a lot of good and healthy variety in what's out there right now.
SPURGEON: Let's talk about your book.
Only Skin started when you were a student, right? It certainly fits the bill as the something longer and more ambitious you say you were looking towards when you enrolled. What started you making it? Was it part of your coursework or were you just getting a jump on a first book? As seeing as it was a first book, how long had you been carrying it around in your head?
I did start Only Skin
at CCS. It actually started as a side project when I was in school. I was working at a convenience store in White River and I would thumbnail the story on my shifts there. It was a sort of version of the book that I intended to do when I went up there, which was originally much more blatantly about my own family, but what came out was of course totally different than the book I originally envisioned. In the sense that it was some version of the book I'd been thinking of, I'd probably been thinking about it since 2003 or so. But in the sense of what came out on the page, it was all pretty much brand new. There was no ghost or gas station or anything in the original idea I had, I think all that came out of being in Vermont.
In the second half of our first year there we were given a little more freedom as to what we turned in for assignments and that's when I started drawing pages of Only Skin
and turning some of them in as homework. Once I started to gain some momentum and decided to collect those pages as a sort of serialized comic, I got really excited and began to think that it was the sort of larger project I had been desperately trying to figure out how to start on for a number of years. In some ways I feel like I may have rushed that moment, like maybe it could have marinated a few more years, but I think a big part of the momentum I need for a project comes from building off that initial spark of excitement, so that's what I tried to do.
SPURGEON: Something you told me once makes me think that
Only Skin went through some development on paper, as you were doing it. Is that a fair statement? Was the work different when it was done than the work you maybe set out to do? How? I know that playwrights talk about a play making itself known to the writer in the making of it; is that true of comics for you at all?
There was a moment in Julia Wertz's The Infinite Wait
where her brother said something to the effect of "maybe you shouldn't be doing a book about recovering from alcoholism while you're recovering from alcoholism" and I thought that was a really wise line that I wish I had seen like six years earlier. Because I feel like that's what I did with Only Skin
. The book was about my mentally processing some family history and my own wrangling with the idea of getting tested for a genetic disease and I was writing and drawing it while still heavily reckoning with those things. So because of that and because of my own shifting perspective on how to deal with it, the book did change as it went along or evolved or adapted, maybe.
I also feel very strongly, as you suggest, that making a book is a sort of journey, and if I knew where it was going when I started it would be boring for me to make and also boring for the reader to come along. I think what attracts me to writing stories is this idea of trying to tackle a question I don't know the answer to. And hopefully the process of writing or telling the story helps me answer it or gets me closer to answering it. And hopefully that process of discovery or failed discovery is valuable to readers or makes some connection with readers. I think that sometimes I find flawed attempts at describing something complicated a lot more interesting than totally successful attempts at describing something boring or safe.
Of course, that struggle of the work changing or evolving as it went along led to me have to go back and spend like six months heavily editing the book and making sure it all fit together when I was done. But I think that editing process was extremely valuable to me and the work. I learned a lot. I'm not sure how much editing goes into everyone's graphic novels, I'm always curious. But like I said, I spent at least six months drawing 40 or so new pages completely and probably editing 100 other pages in the book in some small or major way. Part of that was to clean up art consistency, but a large part of it made the story stronger or hang together better, I think. And I think I'm okay with that process, because it kept the book fresh to me. I don't know if I could comprehend fully scripting and thumb-nailing a book and having everything be locked in and then going back to draw it. It would feel like all the discovery had already happened and I was just a technician making clean versions of the final art. I worry that a book like that would feel dead on arrival.
SPURGEON: What about the family dynamic that you originally wanted to write about made it into the final version of
I think I purposely took out a lot of specific details from what I was originally thinking and tried to both obscure it and hopefully make it somewhat more universal by making it more fictional. I think that's a strength of fiction -- you can make really specific feelings seem more universal by making them apply to broader situations -- sort of like the way Scott McCloud
talks about a cartoonish face being accessible because we can project ourselves onto it more easily. Or at least that's I what think good fiction and comics do. You try to take a really specific horrible thing and make it so other people can relate to it or identify with it. And that's the whole thing: communicating that and maybe communicating an answer or a way out. I'm not claiming to be there, but that's what I aspire to.
But what I was trying to convey was a sense of trying to rebuild a family after a great loss. My family went through a lot of loss from the time I was 10 to 20 yrs old or so and we're still dealing with the specter of more loss. I think the process of writing the book for me was trying to figure out if there was a way back from that or a way forward from that. The title of the book means a lot of things to me, but part of it is this idea of what you inherit from your parents or family. Is it this deep shit that you have to sort out and figure out how to carry through your life or is it just a bunch of chemicals that form the meat of you? Is your inheritance something you can sort of figure out how to reckon with? How do you come to terms with it? I guess those are the major questions that made it into the book, while a lot of specifics got fictionalized to make them more interesting, more universal maybe and also less potentially traumatic for my family to read about.
I've always been haunted by Ingmar Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly
because it's one of the most beautiful movies I've ever seen, but also because it's about an author who writes about his daughter's schizophrenia. She finds the novel in his desk and the betrayal causes her final break with reality. So I guess I try to be careful in telling my own story that I don't overly share the stories of other members in my family.
SPURGEON: There are a few things I found really intriguing about
Only Skin. One was this portrayal of a bleak, arbitrary nature of life-as-lived on display. You end up in this town for a reason but it may not be about maximizing any possibilities; you are expected to be friends with a kid because his mother met your mother. There's a real undercurrent to some of the more overt horror-story elements you use that I think betray a sort of extremely critical, even disassociated mindset. Am I reading too much into that, or is there anything in that description you recognize? Is it easy for you to feel a strong connection to a place, to other people?
I think what you're talking about definitely captures my mindset when I was first writing and drawing the book. I've never actually felt associations or connections to places until extremely recently -- I've just realized I really like where I'm living now, which is a first. Every other place I've ever lived has felt like a weird obligation that I've had to put up with. As for disassociation... I'm not sure I know what you mean by that? Maybe that's part of growing up in Connecticut and feeling like a total outsider but also trying to pass as a normal person. I think it's funny how many horror cartoonists have Connecticut roots: Al Columbia
, Josh Simmons
, Bill Sienkiewicz
and I think a few others. So something about Connecticut is horror-inducing, maybe creating the disassociation feeling you're talking about, the kind Tim Burton
talked about growing up in Burbank, California where all the houses looked the same. I think the sort of dreary samey-ness of Connecticut can lead to feeling weirdly disconnected from everything. And there's the whole Stepford Wives
thing, which was about how these Waspy Connecticut wives all acted so similar and fake they might as well be robots. Connecticut was certainly very alienating. I never felt like I had any real friends until I got to New York for college. I guess the disassociation is maybe a defense mechanism that I developed growing up. I'm trying to figure that out and part of that is trying to work it out through stories/comics. I will say that I feel like now I have lots of strong connections to people, both in the comics world and outside it -- but I guess it'd be accurate to say that it took me a while to get to that point.
SPURGEON: The woods are all by themselves this giant, hovering metaphor within the work -- this place of connection between real/unreal worlds, and a scary place distinct from the everyday life, and so on. Do you have any kind of experience with that kind of place? It shows up in some of your stand-alone drawings, too.
I grew up near what I felt like was a huge and terrifying forest, that was in reality not scary at all. I had a teacher fond of saying there is no wilderness in Connecticut, which I agree with. But I had dreams that wolves would come out of the forest and tear me and my brother apart while we were playing in the backyard. I've always wanted to explore forests because of that. I don't know, something seems primal and raw about them that I really like. They do scare me, but I try to get over that or understand it by camping on my own in them and hiking in them. I've spent some time as a grown-up by myself in very large forests and it's a really terrifying experience for me, but it's a form of torturing myself that helps me figure things out, maybe?
I started reading a lot of the German Romanticists
novels from the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the European Modernists
, too. I really identified with the way they talked about nature as this sublime and primal force. For a long time I thought of the environment of Only Skin
as sort of a psychic landscape of the problems I was working through, kind of like Jean Grey
's astral plane in X-Men
or whatever. But reading more and more about German Romanticist painters and novelists, I feel like it's got more in common with that, with maybe a little astral projection mixed in.
I do think of the forest in Only Skin
as a place where two worlds collide and the boundaries between them get really blurry. I think it did have a pretty strong metaphorical function in the work as this sort of place of crossing over for Cassie, Clay and Paul.
SPURGEON: One of the more notable things about
Only Skin is the way you choose to depict the ghosts, this kind of simplified, almost comedic abstraction of someone wearing a sheet. How did you land on that visual? Did it always work the way you intended?
The ghost was actually from a series of drawings I did in college. For some reason it always stuck with me as a simple and iconic image. And obviously lots of people have used similar versions -- of course the iconic Peanuts
one, etc. I think that sort of visual juxtaposition is something that comics can do really well. You can present a sinister or disturbing character or idea in an almost disarmingly simple way. You can contrast completely different styles of drawing and make an effective point. I like when comics do that. I don't know if it was always the way I intended it to work, but once I started drawing the ghost he had his own voice and everything and it just felt right so I went with it.
SPURGEON: I imagine there's something to be made about the ending in terms of who suffers and who escapes, but one thing I found specifically interesting was how there was a whole dropped series of horrors in the town, apparently, which we only just return to. Is there something that you find compelling about these kinds of jumps in terms of how they play in comics, how not showing something can have its own effectiveness, particularly in horror?
Yeah, I think not showing the reader everything, not leading them by the nose to every single conclusion is something I really enjoy about comics and fiction and movies and storytelling in general. It's partly that thing where nothing you can show will be worse than something the reader can imagine when left to his or her own devices. And it's partly building up a sort of trust with the reader where you sort of say, "Okay, I trust you to figure this out, I respect you enough that I won't spell this out for you and let's move on to what happens after." It's kind of like McCloud's idea of what happens in the gutter between panels: the reader has to do a little more work to complete the action with comics. You can do that with story components, too. I think it leads to more involvement and investment by the reader. I always love authors or creators who show a level of respect to their readers. I think it's a more engaging experience and I think it's more fun to write that way. I don't know how good I am at it yet, but that's something I'd like to continue to try and get better at.
SPURGEON: The conventional wisdom about comics and horror is that comics are good at showing scenes of betrayed intimacy and grotesqueries, but because of the control the reader is afforded over how they read the works it's hard to scare people. How do you see the strengths and weaknesses of that genre as one suited for comics? Do you have a pantheon of creators or works that work the same general area you just did?
I think about that a lot, honestly. I mean, I like monsters. I like when people have to overcome tremendous obstacles or impediments. Horror is almost always about facing and overcoming something traumatic. I don't know that the point is to scare people as much as it is to tell a story about overcoming something awful. Maybe? And I don't even know that my interest in horror is trying to scare people. I think my interest in horror is somehow about a way of looking at the world. Maybe expecting the worst and the worst is actually worse than you could imagine and figuring out how to overcome that. I enjoy that about horror.
I don't even know if I would consider myself a horror cartoonist, I really hate the idea of being confined to rules of a certain genre, but there are parts of it I think I like. I like how rich with metaphor a lot of horror is. Like The Shining
is one of my favorite movies but I don't think it's really that scary. It's more a great metaphor for a family dealing with an abusive parent. I think sometimes if you try to talk about an issue like that, abusive parents or gun violence or racism, it can come off as incredibly preachy and heavy-handed and that can just make something shut off for a reader. I think when you mix those ideas into a horror story or some other kind of story and kind of sneak in what you're trying to say a little more metaphorically you can get away with a lot more -- again, it's the same sort of trusting your reader to be able to connect the dots a little.
I think a lot of authors I love are able to do that. I think I might feel more affinity to certain writers than cartoonists: writers like Kelly Link
and Victor LaValle
and Roberto Bolano
and Haruki Murakami
and someone like Werner Herzog
and the way they can use horror or fantastical elements to serve a larger story have been major influences on me. I think there is definitely a group of cartoonists who I consider really strong horror cartoonists -- or cartoonists who are able to use elements of horror well -- like Al Columbia, Charles Burns
, Josh Simmons, Eamon Espey
, Jamie Tanner
, Chris Reynolds
, the Mazzucchelli/Karasik City of Glass
adaptation, Tatsumi's short stories, Kazuo Umezu
, Junji Ito
, Steve Bissette, the early Chester Brown stuff like Ed the Happy Clown
. Oh, and I think Clowes' Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron
is a really disturbing book.
I don't know if there's a straight line that runs through all those cartoonists. And I certainly feel like I have as much aspiration to make work like Jaime Hernandez
or Dylan Horrocks as much as any of those guys. Though even Jaime did a really disturbing comic in Ghost of Hoppers
: where Maggie is driving on that highway late at night and meets that terrifying dog? And is there a more disturbing or unnerving comic than Flies on the Ceiling
? I think genre horror interests me less than horror used like Clowes
or Jaime use it: to accentuate an emotional state or moment. I don't love the idea of genre; I like the idea of using aspects of many genres to serve a story.
SPURGEON: What's something about being published by Secret Acres that surprised you?
Now I'm definitely going to get kicked off a holiday card list. [Spurgeon laughs] I was actually surprised I guess by the editorial input that Barry and Leon gave. They gave my book a really full read and gave me a lot of feedback about the story. We wound up disagreeing pretty vehemently about some of the feedback, but I think overall that was a positive experience and something I really valued. I trust Barry and Leon's editorial taste and instincts, I they're really strong in that regard. I wasn't sure how that would translate to them giving me feedback, but I think it worked pretty well and was very helpful.
I've also just been impressed and happy to see Secret Acres grow from the time I signed with them in late 2009 to now. They have a really ambitious plan and seem to be picking up momentum and doing bigger and bigger things. So that's really cool to see. I think they're exactly the type of publisher that I want to be with at this point: dedicated to getting their artists' visions out there and supporting that. I'm not one of those people who is very good at the internet or self-promotion. I like twitter a lot, but I'm horrible at getting my work out on the internet myself, so having a publisher who is good at doing that has really helped take my mind off that whole annoying question of what do I need to do to get people to find my work and allowed me to just try to focus on making the work better. I'm grateful to have such dedicated and smart guys helping me.
SPURGEON: I don't want to let an earlier answer of yours get too far away. Knowing "there is almost no money involved" is a fine thing for creative expression, and for when one is younger, but how worried are you about an infrastructure being there to serve you and your peers over the next several decades? How concerned in general are you about the future of the medium in which you practice? Does that change how long you might think you can stick around?
Well, this is the big question, isn't it? You had actually mentioned in your BCGF recap
something about talking to a younger cartoonist about figuring out their career in light of the new financial realities of the comics world and maybe the larger publishing world, too. And I was like, "Oh boy, I wish I'd been a fly on the wall for that one." It's a huge question for all of us, I think.
For me personally, I still feel like I'm not really good enough to be making a lot of money in comics. I feel very much like I'm paying my dues and trying to get better. One way I try to keep going is to have this idea in my head that if I get out the work I want to do and keep improving, maybe I get to the point where someone wants to do a book deal with me that actually allows me to take time off from other stuff and focus only on comics. That would be the dream. And it's a huge frustration and a potential staring into the abyss of despair type thing to feel sometimes like I could be doing that work, that work to get where I need to be, much faster if I didn't have a day job taking up the majority of my time and energy. It's a delicate balance of lying to myself enough to keep going and trying to be realistic about where I am in the foodchain, I guess.
To be honest, I spent a great deal of my 20s feeling completely frustrated and unsure where I fit in the world. I feel like I fit in the comics world, or at least I want to fit there, so I feel like my 30s will be more about figuring out how to devote as much time as possible to that pursuit and seeing where I can go with the work. So, while I don't want it to sound like I'm just happy to be here, I do think the more important thing in my mind is being able to push myself with the work and try to tell and draw the types of stories I think I am capable of. I like the challenge. I spent a lot of my early life being very bored and unengaged and comics is one of the few things I don't feel that way about. They're something that constantly humbles you and constantly challenges you. I think I would be okay if in twenty years I look back and I always had to have a day job to support my comics, but I got to the point where I made something that I felt really proud of and that clicked and worked and was a really successful story. I mean, I'd like to have a few of those. And while it'd certainly be easier to make them if I had an ability to work solely on comics... I guess I've come to terms with having to have a day job.
I think other cartoonists around my age might be better at figuring out avenues to create their own revenue streams in comics or something. There are certainly plenty with Kickstarter
, the ability to sell your stuff online, all the shows you can make money at if you can get and stay there cheaply, and it seems like some people are able to parlay comics success into illustration jobs and stuff. But honestly I'm pretty dumb with money and I just don't know that I've figured out how to do that yet. I think it will be something I think about over the next few years as I work on my next book. But I think it is more important to me at this stage to feel like the work is really there and good and worthwhile. I think that's my focus more than the money. I think it is an important question for all of us and my ears certainly perk up when hearing about the state of comics and more broadly the state of publishing -- which is where my day job is, doing book design -- and I always feel really engaged in that discussion, without really feeling like I'm there yet.
All that said -- and that was a lot, sorry -- I think the medium itself is stronger than it's ever been. And there's been this sort of healthy-seeming realization by a lot of creators lately that they shouldn't enslave themselves to DC or Marvel and they should make work with Image
and hold onto their rights or maybe they do a book with Pantheon
. Or maybe do a book with Secret Acres or Koyama and try to help self-promote it and sell it that way. There are so many options now and the work is so generally strong across the board that I think comics is alive and well. I think it's just more an issue of figuring out when you're at the point of your career when you can take a sort of leap and support yourself solely through comics. I don't know that that will be possible for everyone. And that's probably okay. But the entry-level into the field or into the discussion is lower -- because of the internet and all these shows and I think that's what I meant before about there being a lot of really interesting work finding it's way into the comics world.
* Only Skin (The Book)
* Only Skin (The Blog)
* stand-alone horror image I think from an art show earlier this Fall
* Ford at this year's SPX
* Ford "covers" Claremont-Byrne era X-Men
* an Only Skin
image I liked, swiped from Ford's site
* Ford's class at CCS
* a pair of woods-oriented Only Skin
* the cover to the Secret Acres edition
* a cover for Sundays
* I'm not exactly sure what this is, but it's a nice summary image for Only Skin