In this, the second half of our interview with Los Angeles cartoonist Tom Neely, Illustrator Geoff Gossett takes the role of lead questioner, as we learn more about Neely’s art and process.
Tell me about why you’ve decided to self-publish. I know a lot of people look down on that—they think it must be because no respectable publisher will take you on. But you self-publish as an artistic choice, right?
When I first started making comics, I submitted to all the publishers and no one wanted to publish me (for good reason—my comics weren’t very good back then), but I decided to do it myself. After 7 years of making mini-comics and going to conventions I got a publishing offer for The Blot. But I eventually backed out because of their editorial feedback, differences over the content, and printing matters for the book. We didn’t see eye-to-eye on what the book was, and I realized that no one was going to understand what I wanted to do with my art better than me, so I decided to self-publish once again. It was a difficult choice to make, but it ended up being the best decision I’ve ever made as an artist. I’ve spent the last 3 years dedicated to self-publishing and promoting my books. Now I feel like self-publishing has become an integral part of my art.
I’m hesitant with offers from bigger publishers for various reasons. I’m a bit of a control freak for one thing. I don’t want to compromise on anything, and often you have to when working with a bigger publisher with editors and art directors and PR people all wanting a say in what the end product will be. With self-publishing, I am all of those people, so I have all the say, and as a result you get a book that is 100% my vision. No one knows my art better than me, so who can represent my art better than myself? The only downside is that I am the only person doing all those things, so my reach can only go so far. And I have to maintain a freelance career in animation to pay the bills, so my time is limited. It’s a bit disappointing when people write to me and say they can’t find my books at Barnes and Noble and I have to explain that I don’t use a distributor. But anyone can order a book directly from my website, and there is a list of stores that carry my books on my blog. Distribution is a problem because the comics industry has one monopolistic distributor. I don’t like the way they operate so I choose not to use them. But there is a book rep named Tony Shenton who does a great job of getting my books to stores all over the country. Other that that, it’s just me making the connections myself.
I take inspiration from the tradition of DIY in music and zine culture. And part of what I enjoy about DIY is touring and connecting with my readers. I go to 5 to 10 comic festivals around the country every year and I really enjoy meeting the people who read my comics and hearing what they have to say about them. Building a fanbase slowly and personally is much more fulfilling to me than just sending it off to a publisher and letting someone else do all the work for me.
I’m not completely opposed to being published by someone else. It might happen some day if the right relationship can be worked out. But I really enjoy self-publishing. It isn’t easy, and I don’t think it’s for everyone, but it’s working out well for me. So far so good.
Always. Everything I do with my art and comics is an expression of something personal.
Why do you prefer purely visual panels to dialogue?
I don’t really prefer it, it’s just the way I think. Ideas come to me in images rather than words. I think it comes from my love of painting. I’ve always been more interested in telling a story through pictures because it leaves it more open for interpretation. Words can become so literal, that I always want to be very careful with how or when they are used. When I use words it’s to add a new conceptual or emotional impact into the piece, but I still want it to be ambiguous in a way.
In The Blot, the female character is the only one with a voice because I wanted her to have an intrusive impact on the male protagonist—she controls him with her words. In my comic strip poems I use words that can convey different ideas than what can be shown through the visual. I like the tension created by the words over images and how it leads the reader to try to make connections between disparate ideas. There is a specific meaning behind each piece, but I want them to be ambiguous so the reader has to participate in creating meaning out of these pieces.
How much importance would you say you put on the line work, especially in relation to your narrative?
All aspects are very important to me. I probably put story or idea at the top because I’m always trying to communicate something. I’m not interested in merely making a pretty picture. If an image has nothing to say, I have little interest in it.
Composition is also very important to me. Composition has a lot to do with tension and time in an image. I think of every panel in very abstract terms of special organization. Even though I’m drawing comics, I’m thinking about artists like Franz Kline and Mondrian when composing a panel. The line work is often about emotional impact and I think about the application of paint and ink in abstract expressionism and Japanese calligraphy. But I also kind of fetishize the line work for my own enjoyment. I just really enjoy making marks on paper.
Are the angular characters a conscious Disney/Schielle thing?
I think it’s kind of a natural melding of all the things that have influenced me since I was a kid. My day job is doing freelance animation for Disney, so that’s part of it.
But lately I’ve been trying to push that out to get back to the way I drew when I was younger. I love Schielle, but so many other artists who I think have had an influence on my art: Van Gogh, Vermeer, George Grosz, Otto Dix, Lucien Freud, Carravaggio, Philip Guston, El Greco, William Blake, Rene Magritte, Lynd Ward, early Christian art, all kinds of cartoonists, and so many more…
As I said before, I think it’s a matter of what is it I’m trying to say, and finding a way to draw it that can best express the idea. Sometimes it’s cartoony, and sometimes it’s expressive and angular, while other times it might be realism that best portrays the idea.
Why do you prefer black and white? Where does your specific style of use of color come from?
I don’t prefer black and white necessarily. I use color the same way I use words—when it’s necessary to convey something. I think color has a different impact and shouldn’t be used arbitrarily. For me it’s like the orchestration of music. Why does Thelonious Monk sometimes play solo, sometimes with a trio, and other times with a big band? You have all these different tools that can alter the emotional weight or the meaning of a piece. Black and white is the basic structure or the bare minimum needed to create an image. Color and words can be added when necessary to heighten the impact, or to introduce a different concept. Different kinds of color application, use of limited color or full color, or different kinds of paint, all give different meaning as well. To me all of these things have to be considered and used for a reason.
Again, very much like a poem.
I have to ask: I’m not familiar with the Popeye cartoons—truthfully they never got my attention—but it seems like every major artist out there lists it as one of the seminal comics in their life. How did Popeye influence you and to what do you attribute its deep appeal?
I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but Segar does seem to have a strong appeal with many generations of cartoonists. For me, I’m just fascinated by his visual sensibilities. I’m not exactly sure how to describe it, but he does certain things with his characters and backgrounds and compositions that are unlike anyone else. I can get lost in one of his panels the same way I can get lost in a painting by Franz Kline or Rene Magritte.
And I know I’m reading more into Segar’s art than he probably intended, but I just feel like his visual vocabulary was on a different level than many other cartoonists. He was a bit of a surrealist in his ideas, which always appeals to me. He’s also a master storyteller who wrote novel-length stories in comic strip form that would last for months and months. I’m also a big fan of the Fleischer Studio animated Popeye cartoons. I think they are some of the best animated films ever made.
And his slogan “I Yam what I Yam” is a perfect non-conformist attitude and very Zen to me. (And I love yams!) I have Popeye anchor tattoos on my forearms. So, I’m a big Popeye fan all around
It’s funny you mention Philip Guston. You seem to have the same graphic style but yours is a more focused, refined version of him. Do you think he influenced your storytelling or subject matter or graphic style or composition more?
I think he drew inspiration from similar sources as I do, and I actually discovered a lot of old cartoonists like Segar and Herriman through reading about Guston’s influences. But for me, my love of Guston is more of a life inspiration than any direct artistic influence.
When I was halfway through my MFA in painting, I was ready to give up. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had been beaten down by the wrong professors and a school full of students who said, Painting is dead! I didn’t know what I wanted to make art about anymore. I was doing photo-realistic paintings of scrambled television images because it seemed like everyone was just trying to come up with some original concept and that’s all you needed to do to be an artist. I felt like I had lost myself and lost all touch with who I was as an artist. I didn’t know where to go.
I went back to Texas for a week to visit my parents and I had a bit of a nervous breakdown and almost dropped out of school. But I had a biography of Guston with me and started reading it. He was an artist who started gaining fame and recognition in abstract expressionism, but began to feel lost in that. He felt like he had more to say and wanted to move towards more narrative and figurative work, which was completely out of fashion in the art world at the time. He started doing his paintings that were inspired by early comic strips and the critics and galleries hated it and rejected him. But he kept at it because he felt like he’d found what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it. He found his own voice and didn’t care what anyone else thought. At the time, I’d been doodling a lot of comics in my sketchbooks, but I’d always been told that comics weren’t serious art. Reading about Guston gave me the confidence to start making my own comics and making paintings that were based on those comics. I was able to find myself as an artist and re-invigorate myself towards getting back to art school and proving to all the students and teachers who had said, Painting is dead! that I was a painter and a cartoonist and I wasn’t ashamed of it. And somehow it worked out.
I’ve always had a fantasy that most folks working for Disney are like you. By day doing inbetweens of Mickey giving Minnie flowers and then going home to toil on their darkly existentialist personal narrative.
I wish that were more the case, and there are probably others out there like me, but unfortunately I don’t think the studios foster that kind of artist any more. Everyone is encouraged to work in the Disney styles.
In the old days, Walt Disney recruited different artists with different sensibilities and encouraged them to bring their own ideas to the table. Now that system has been taken over by a corporate mentality and it’s all about perpetuating the commodity of the Disney brand and that comes with a lot of strict rules about how things are done. In many cases, the artists that work in these studios are very talented illustrators, but whatever they have to say gets squashed out of them by a system that doesn’t care. So you end up with the same crappy Disney movies made over and over again. It’s sad really. There’s a lot of talent that gets wasted in the big studio system.
But I should probably say that I don’t work in the studio. I’m a freelancer, and most of my work is flash animated web-games. I like the work because it allows me time to make my own art. I used to have a lot more passion for animation and wanted to do more in that field, but now it’s more of a day job to pay the bills.
Are you afraid you’re going to get what Crumb calls “The Cuteness Gene”?
I think I luckily exorcised the cuteness gene from my system years ago. When I was working at Disney, I was making comics that were very cute and friendly and much more inspired by the language of cartoons. They weren’t very good, though.
Much like when I was in art school, I kinda lost myself amid too many external influences of the animation industry I was trying to be a part of. But I left the in-house job to be a freelancer so I could spend more time working on my personal art and comics. And pretty soon I started to find my own voice again and make comics that were more personal. The Blot is what grew out of that. And now I’m moving beyond that into something completely different and even more personal. So, I think the cuteness gene is no longer a threat.
Do you have any nostalgic or general affinity for Paris, especially now that you’ve been in LA? Have you been to Paris, CA?
I’m sorry to say I hadn’t even heard of Paris, CA.
Yeah, I’m nostalgic for it. It was a pretty good place to grow up. I still have a picture of the Paris, TX Eiffel Tower hanging in my kitchen. When I was growing up in Paris, all I wanted to do was escape to a bigger city. But almost as soon as I started living in California, I started to have some nostalgia for the small-town life. I’m very proud to be a Texan, even if I don’t seem like a typical Texan. I know I could never live there again, but I am in many ways a small town person and L.A. often starts to overwhelm me. My wife grew up in Manhattan and she’s very much a big-city girl who could never be comfortable in a small town like Paris. But someday I hope we’ll compromise at a city that’s a little less hectic than L.A.
How do you feel about digital comics and would you ever consider the possibility of trying it?
I’m sure there are some people doing good digital comics, but I’m not really a fan. I have very little attention span for reading comics online, and I have an aversion to looking at things that look like they were created with a computer. And I just don’t feel creative when I’m sitting in front of a computer.
I’m a traditionalist when it comes to materials. I love ink and paint and paper and pencils and all that stuff. I hand letter as much of my work as I can, too. I have friends in the animation business that are always talking about new programs that replicate different painting techniques and stuff, but that just sounds miserable to me. My freelance animation work is mostly done on the computer. But as far as my artwork and comics goes, the only use of computer is for scanning and laying out the book when it comes time to publish it. Everything else is done by hand because that’s the joy of making art for me.
Do you have any major projects or ideas for what you want to do next or in the future?
Too many… I’ve got a backlog of books I want to draw and paintings I want to create. I wish I had more time to devote to my personal art because I’ve got so many ideas. I already have 2 more graphic novels and several shorter comics projects written and waiting for me to get to. I’m working out ideas for a few series of paintings, too.
My brother, Blake Neely, is a composer and we have been throwing around the idea of some kind of collaboration of art and music. It’s frustrating to not have the time to do these things, because I have to make money by doing the animation work, but it’s nice to feel like I’ll never run out of ideas.
And if I ever do run out of ideas, I’ve always wanted to do a completely unabridged visual adaptation of my favorite book, Moby Dick. If anyone wants to pay my mortgage and bills for a couple of years while I attempt to draw that, I’d go for it.