Tom Neely is a painter and cartoonist living in Los Angeles with his wife and a dog. His art has been featured in galleries in San Francisco and Los Angeles, in dozens of magazines and literary journals and on album covers. His debut graphic novel, The Blot, earned him an Ignatz Award for “Promising New Talent,” and made it onto several of the industry’s “Best of 2007” lists. One of his latest publications is Brilliantly Ham-fisted, a collection of 23 comic strip poems, which first inspired my own interest in his work.
Neely will be featured at the Silver Lake Jubilee, a Molossus partner event, at the Jubilee Comix Showcase. Art Director Geoff Gossett and I corresponded with Neely by email. Our conversation was so enjoyable, Neely so generous, that we decided to divide our interview into two parts, so it could be enjoyed in its entirety, with all accompanying art.
I started doing these pieces about three or four months after my first graphic novel, The Blot, came out. I was doing them for myself in my sketchbook to just reconnect with my own ideas and get all of the external expectations of audience and critics and friends out of my head. I wanted to get back to just making some art for myself. All of my art is made from that idea, but the new attention that my book was bringing was a bit overwhelming, so I needed to retreat a bit and find a new secret place to make my art. But I always like to challenge myself with some kind of formal experiment, so I had the idea of restricting my thoughts to the format of the traditional 4-panel comic strip. I’ve always been a big fan of early comic strips from Mutt & Jeff, Popeye and Barney Google on up to Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes. I wanted to do something loosely related to that tradition, but push it in a new direction. So, it became an experiment in minimal storytelling and the practice of pairing down ideas to the bare essential. They are very elusive and ambiguous because they are extremely personal. But I started to like them enough to put them on my blog as a weekly strip, and then eventually I made a book out of them. I didn’t exactly think of approaching them as if they were poetry, but the use of recurring visual symbols, the rhythm of panel pacing, the stripped down use of words, and leaving space for the reader to have to put the pieces together all seemed, to me, to have some kind of relation to poetry. So, that’s why I decided to call them comic strip poems.
Who else is making them?
I’m not sure. I wasn’t really aware of anyone doing this kind of thing specifically. I think the closest thing would be what John Hankiewicz does with some of his comics. Austin English makes art-comics that are very poetic, too. But they also approach it in a different way, and are possibly more successful at achieving “poetry” than me.
Have you seen the collaborations between comics artists and poets that have been commissioned by the Poetry Foundation? They’re cool, but they’re not as subtle as your comic poems, not as organic or together as yours. What do you think about that collaborative process, as it compares to your own comic strip poems?
I’ve seen a few of those. But I think they are a different thing- an artist interpreting a writer’s words into an illustrated poem. It takes on the form of an illustrator paying homage to a poem, rather than creating a new piece of art from themselves or through collaboration. To me it has more in common with the graphic novel adaptations of novels that are popping up these days. There’s nothing wrong with that stuff, but it’s very different from what I’m trying to do—which is a highly personal process in an attempt to create a piece of art, as opposed to illustrating someone else’s ideas.
That makes sense. Still, if you could collaborate with any poet, living or dead, who would it be?
That’s a tough one. For one thing, I’m not very good at collaborating, but if the right mutual balance of artistic expression can happen, it could be possible. Living? Maybe my old art history teacher, poet Bill Berkson (who also collaborated with one of my favorite painters, Philip Guston, to create some poem-paintings). Dead? Maybe Baudelaire or Rimbaud. I love the anger and intensity in their work. I’ve always loved Yeats, but his work is so complete that I would just be illustrating his ideas with no room to really put myself into it.
Do you prefer pen or brush?
Almost everything is drawn with a brush. I love the feel of a brush dragging across paper. And I have much more control over the line with a brush than with a pen. I think about drawing with ink like it is painting.
Would you say your fine art training has helped your comics or are you trying to get closer to fine art with what you do with your comics?
I think it influences the way I approach making comics. I approach my comics as art. I’m not interested in merely illustrating stories. Everything I make in comics or painting has to come from a personal expression, and I think that comes from my love of pure artists like Van Gogh and Willem DeKooning and Philip Guston as well as other writers and artists. But I think I’m always caught somewhere in between comics and art. My art is too “cartoony” for the art world, but my comics are too arty for mainstream comics, and too narrative to be art-comics. So, I don’t really fit in anywhere. But I like that. It’s good to not fit in.
brilliantly ham-fisted is pretty dark. I’m especially interested in one of its later poems, “new,” reprinted above. Its third panel is completely black except for two speech bubbles that say, respectively, “Cynicism is easy” and “Hope isn’t.” That line of reasoning seems to thread through the entire collection, and I wondered if you could speak to that.
That particular strip was created when one of my best friends had their first child. And that is amazing to me because when I think about whether I might want kids someday, I start to think about what a horrible place this world can be and how much damage can be inflicted on a child and how much damage people do to the earth and whether I would want to be responsible for bringing someone into this world at all. And then some close friend overcomes (or overlooks) those obstacles and makes a beautiful little baby and I just think it’s amazing. But I think that idea is also related to the process of making art. There are so many reasons not to make art. And it’s so difficult to try to make something very personal and beautiful. To want to communicate something to a world that might be completely indifferent, or worse wouldn’t’ take the time to understand it. Or maybe what you have to say has already been said or doesn’t matter. There is a lot of risk in making art the way I want to make it. As well as a lot of risk in that I choose to be a self-publishing artist. It seems like it might be much easier to just give up and get a day-job and make money and work towards retirement like most people. But that would be a miserable, cynical existence for me. I’d rather keep trying to make art and hope that someone might want to read my comics and maybe they’ll get something out of it. Most of these strips are seen as pretty dark because they are about that process of making very personal art. But even though they are dark at times, because they deal with things like depression and frustration, I think there is a lot of hope and even a bit of humor in what I’m trying to say, too.
That sounds a lot like the life of a poet.
You seem to be a fan old classic cartoons and comics. What were your favorite artists/pieces/series from that period?
I’ve definitely been very influenced by early comic strip art like E.C. Segar’s Popeye, Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse, Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff, Billy DeBeck’s Barney Google, and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, as well as early cartoons like those made by the Fleischer Studios. But I don’t want to get trapped into always drawing like a ‘30s comic strip artist. I like to explore different styles for different ideas and different projects. So, with The Blot, and some of the comic strip poems, I was exploring something that related to classic comic strips, but my current book takes a significant departure from that style into something more expressionistic. Being pinned down to draw one certain way for everything is very limiting and I think antithetical to artistic growth.
That’s true, and I think far too many comics artists—especially hip, young graphic novelists—get caught in the trap.
Yeah, I notice that, too. I’m always surprised and disappointed by this phenomenon of so many cartoonists working to define a style, but then never growing beyond it. It doesn’t make sense to me, and it bores me to death. But I think it can be a symptom of a number of things. Sometimes you see someone get some fame and they keep repeating themselves to maintain the expectations of their audience. I say fuck that—challenge the audience. If they can’t follow you, then you’ll find a new audience. Or maybe an artist thinks they should do a follow-up or sequel to their last successful book. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me they are anticipating the sequel to The Blot. I guess those fans may be disappointed, but I can’t even imagine doing another book that resembled that. It was a specific thing for me, and I can’t repeat it. That would be a disservice to myself and to The Blot. Or maybe they have expectations from their publishers or something that push them to repeat themselves… I don’t know. I just always want to be moving forward and trying new things.
What are you reading, watching, listening to now?
At this very moment the Karate Kid is on TV (muted—I’ve seen it a million times), I’m listening to Crass’ “Yes Sir, I Will” and the book I was reading this morning is The Complete Poems of William Blake. I’ve been trying to read a little bit of that every morning, lately. But I’m always reading, watching and listening to so many different things. I read based on my mood—in a good mood I read some old comics, in a serious mood maybe some philosophy or a novel, in a sad mood maybe some poetry… so I’m always in the middle or several books. There’s a stack of books beside my bed that I’m halfway through including: The Complete Milt Gross comics, Choosing Death: the Improbable history of Death Metal and Grindcore, The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich, No by Boyd Rice, Memories Dreams, Reflections by Carl Jung, and Vertigo by Lynd Ward.
I love Lynd Ward. All of the woodcut novelists, really. Frans Masereel’s The City is one of my favorite books. Interesting, I think, what your comic poems and longer works, ilke The Blot, might have in common with wordless woodcut novels.
Yeah, I have most of Lynd Ward’s woodcut novels and I’m always reading and re-reading them. Otto Nuckel and Masareel are also really great. The work of these artists is definitely more along the lines of what I’m doing with my current graphic novel, which is less like a comic and more like a narrative series of paintings and drawings.
I also find a great deal of inspiration from music and movies… The last 4 albums I listened to were Shining (a Norwegian jazz-prog-metal band), The Big To-Do by the Drive By Truckers, Meat is Murder by the Smiths and part of a Dead Raven Choir box set. I just got the new Ludicra album and it is really beautiful. I’ve spent a lot of time dissecting Miles Davis’s early 70s recordings this year. I could go on and on about music all day.
I watched Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive twice this week. The colors and art direction in that movie are amazing. I saw Noah Baumbach’s new movie Greenberg the other night. And I’m thinking of watching Burial Ground or maybe Born of Fire this afternoon. I’ve been studying every John Carpenter film lately. And I’ve also been obsessing over Jack Webb—lots of Dragnet and Adam 12. In today’s tumultuous political climate, I’ve found that episodes of Star Trek The Next Generation are like comfort food. When I need inspiration or motivation I watch documentaries about artists or musicians. I’m a junkie for books, music, movies and TV. Luckily I can do a lot of those things while drawing.
What projects are you working on?
I’m nearly done with my next graphic novel The Wolf. It’s a collaborative project between my art and music by Aaron Turner (ISIS, House of Low Culture). I’ve been working on it for over a year, and I’m very anxious to finish it. I’m also really excited to be working with Aaron. His music has always been an inspiration to me and it’s amazing to collaborate with him. The back and forth has been interesting and inspiring because we have a strong respect for each other’s work and I think in some ways a similar process for making our art.
The end result will be a book accompanied by an album—four chapters and four songs. I’m also working on a series of small paintings that are called “I’ve just figured it all out…” They are, in some ways, an extension of the idea of the comic strip poems in that they are a new attempt at getting back to making art for myself and freely expressing any and every idea I have. I don’t know what I’m doing with them, I have no plans for showing them at a gallery or anything like that yet. And that’s part of what makes them so much fun to make.