Friday, January 24, 2014

Let's Rap With Abhay

When I realized the tenth anniversary of this blog was fast approaching, I tried to think of something special for the occasion. It didn't take me long to realize that in all this time there was one thing I had always wanted to do but had never actually got around to doing: have a conversation with Abhay Khosla. I've never made any secret of the fact that Abhay has always been one of the biggest influences on this blog, one of the inspirations behind me even starting The Hurting to begin with (along with the often-dead-but-sometimes-not Gone & Forgotten). But in all the years I've been doing this, I had never actually had a conversation with Abhay longer than a couple lines here and there. Truth be told, I've always been a little bit intimidated . . . but I've been doing this for ten years, so I felt mildly justified in taking the opportunity to bug him to assent to my prodding.

I would hesitate to call this an "interview" - I talk too much to ever be a good interviewer. Let's say it's a conversation. 

This conversation was conducted online via Google Drive during the week of January 12th.

Tim: Thank you again for agreeing to this. When we spoke over e-mail you seemed slightly confused (unless I misread your tone) as to what exactly I wanted to accomplish here. Basically, let me be frank, you’re my favorite writer about comics. I’ve followed your career since way back in the day when you did a column called Title Bout for a defunct site called Movie Poop Shoot. Back then you were simply “A.K.” Title Bout only lasted a year, but what a glorious year it was. I wonder if you can say a few things about the column - how it came about, why it ended when it did, what you took away from it (if anything).  

Abhay: Hi, Tim. Thanks for the nice words and congratulations again on your anniversary. Movie Poop Shoot was a Kevin Smith website named after a joke from one of his movies, a sort of parody name for what a movie website would be called. This was in 2002/2003. (Twelve years later, friends will sometimes link me to Ass-Busters Movie Kung Fu Website #1 or some site with a name like that, where everybody writes in all-caps, so maybe not a lot’s changed since then-- people just take that stuff seriously now which is weird). To put 2002/2003 in context, Wikipedia puts YouTube as only starting in February 2005.  Early, early days. There were these weird would-be “magazine” sites, but they didn’t catch on and I had never been too interested by those. But a friend of mine was put in charge of MPS, so I thought it might be fun to write for that site… (I’m leaving out a lot but (a) it’s boring and (b) it’s boring).  

The format of it was that every week Diamond was supposed to release a list of what was coming out that week, and I’d try to write jokes about those lists.  But I didn’t know how to write jokes…?  I had goofed off on message boards before that but the whole joke thing, I didn’t really know what I was doing.  Plus, I only had a day or so to write the column for the joke to work-- the joke was I would take the lists and guess what the comics were without having seen them.  The lists came out on a Monday, and books came out on Wednesday, so that joke only worked on Tuesday.  So what would happen is I’d be up till 3 or 4 in the morning on a Monday night, just writing this stream of consciousness stuff that I kinda hoped resembled jokes.  (And that I also wanted to be filthy-- I wanted that column to be as filthy as humanly possible).  (There’s this Tom Green interview that I still think about, where he’d talk about how when his show got moved from public access to MTV, for the first few weeks there was “raccoon semen” everywhere-- I’m not a huge Tom Green fan but “raccoon semen” always just seemed like that’s what the goal should be. “I have a column on a website?  It should be drenched in raccoon semen”-- actual thoughts that got thunked).  

The very first column, one of the comic titles was “FATAL BEAUTY” and my joke was “Sounds like a comic about a young girl's endearing, yet increasingly disturbing relationship with a horse.”  Ten years later, I recycled that for a webcomic I made. So I liked that one.  But there were way, way, way more jokes that didn’t work than did, and the jokes were surrounded by just … sad nerdy rants (90% of which I’d probably disown now) and yelling and swearing about weird things on the news or that just happened to be on my television while I was writing the thing; dumbshit 20-year-old kid politics and ignorance; weird personal stuff; making myself a pest and yelling about dumb controversies.  I don’t know-- I only ever care about the jokes, and the jokes mostly were not great because it was always just some last minute panic thing.  

Anyways, I don’t think I could’ve done more than that year-- it was just … The lists would be material to bounce off of but it’d be the same lists month after month.  And it just took up a lot of time and … and it just wasn’t funny enough-- I didn’t know what I was doing to do it well for that long. Plus, back then, all the good comic columns ended in a year.  This was back when there were comic columns…? People reading this might not even have any idea what I’m referring to-- there were all of these columns, and they all lasted about a year, if they were good. Come in Alone, Basement Tapes, the Steven Grant columns, Gail Simone’s early thing, the whole forgotten era of comic columns as vehicles for online personae or what have you.  (My favorite was Warren Ellis’s Do Anything…?  That one was more of a subjective history of comics than a “column”).  No one gives a shit about columns anymore-- not comic pros anyways, which is maybe just as well, the online persona bit being pretty gross.  On the other hand, I’m not sure if any of that’s gone away any-- with twitter, I’m sure people are still getting sold on some shabby books based on “so and so’s brand stands for hugs”, so.  Columns arguably forced the author and recipient of the personae to consider some greater picture of Comics, maybe…?  Doesn’t matter.  That time is gone.

I don’t know. Do you feel observant of that after all the years you’ve been doing things, because you started just before there were blogs, then there were blogs, and now there kind of aren’t blogs anymore (unless you count Tumblr, but Tumblr’s a micro-blogging platform-- it’s not really blogging the same way)…?  Do you feel like things have built up and crumbled or… Or is it just something you don’t think about or…?  Like, when I think about that old column-- the only way the story of that old column makes sense is to remember an internet that I can’t even imagine anymore.  I can’t imagine an internet without youtube-- it’s as distant to me as trying to remember using a modem that made a sound like a living animal’s soul being sent to hell to connect to some rad BBS. That squee-squach-SCRRRRRCH noise.  There are still people writing long things but I feel like things have gotten quicker and glibber and slicker and more buzzfeed-y.  There are movie websites where everything is in all-caps, and it’s like… I just feel old.  I just feel like an old person.  

No, that makes perfect sense to me. I’m as we speak writing some kind of “Tenth Anniversary” type essay for this site (which you will have already read by the time this goes live, hopefully), and it’s a hard task. In doing so I’ve learned a few things: 1) Talking about something you’ve been doing for ten years makes you either sound proud or pitiful, or - since this is comics - both, and let’s just coin the word “pitiproudful” while we’re at it. 2) The internet isn’t the same, just as you describe.

I don’t know if you remember Neilalien? I assume everyone knows Neilalien because he was more or less the majordomo for all the comics bloggers who came up around the same time as me. He was / still is an incredibly nice man, helped me out personally, as well as a number of other bloggers I know. He started his blog in 2000. That is inconceivable. I know there was an internet in 2000, I know I was on it. Hell, I met my ex-wife online, in the final weeks of the Twentieth Century before Y2K happened and wiped out human civilization. Actually, maybe things would have been better for me if we had been knocked back to the stone age . . . making ex-wife jokes makes me feel like I should be playing a resort in the Catskills, but there you go.

Can you imagine starting a blog in 2000? No YouTube, obviously, no Wikipedia - I am on Wikipedia, what, six? Ten times a day, at least? More if I’m researching something for work? We have no long-term memories anymore because the parts of our brain that used to be proud that we could remember the name of that one episode where Frank Gorshin looks like the In-Betweener took a permanent vacation the moment we discovered it was easier to outsource that memory to someone writing incredibly detailed episode summaries in their basement - someone “in-between” jobs, as it were. (“Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” incidentally.) I remember the first time I had broadband - back in the day we called it T1 and we were happy to have it. It was also, coincidentally, the same month Napster appeared. That was a good month to be amoral. It was awful, back when you needed a degree in Computer Science to download things off something called “FTP servers,” then Napster came along and it was easy.  

It’s weird just how branded the internet has become, even our weird incestuous little corner in the comics industry. And when I say “weird” I don’t mean, “wow, that was unexpected,” because obviously it was inevitable. I think it’s weird because for all those years that the techno-utopians were proclaiming that this would never happen, that the internet would stay decentralized and free, what happened turned out to be precisely what the internet hippies swore up-and-down would never happen. Everything anyone cares about is owned by big fish. You’ve got major portals that suck all the traffic, and the best any site can hope for is to be one of those major portals that produces sufficient content to attract ad revenue.

There just aren’t a lot of homegrown comics blogs anymore. A lot of the bloggers who came up with me have quit, or moved on to paying jobs at larger sites, or their own comics work. The major writing about comics online now is done on corporate sites, or a few group blogs like Mindless Ones or Hooded Utilitarian. Even Tucker does “Comics of the Weak” for the Journal now, which makes complete sense: of course he’s going to get more eyeballs at a major (only in comics!) site like that than he will writing something for The Factual Opinion. I used to write for the Journal and even though I’ve done a couple stunt bits for Tucker - and have an open invitation to do more - I feel like I spent enough time burning my bridges at that company that it’s a bit weird to go back, whatever the circumstances.  

That whole “cult of personality” thing you describe from around that time - thinking back on it, that’s a really nasty business. Any creator who wants to spend some serious time online interacting with fans or dictating foreign policy is going to build a cargo cult around themselves. Fans aren’t picky, and most of them are rock stupid (even if we have a PhD in nuclear physics, the moment we place that “fan” hat on our heads the IQ gets chopped in half), so if Warren Ellis forms a fan club of people who somehow missed the memo about Transmetropolitan being terrible, those folks are going to follow him around like puppy dogs if he deigns to acknowledge them. I wonder how different that is from the way we have it now, where many (most?) creators are on Twitter or Tumblr or - I don’t know, Reddit? Is that something? I don’t know what Reddit is, I just assume it’s pictures of Japanese girls in panties, because that’s like half the internet at any given moment. Hell, I’ve got Kieron Gillen and Kurt Busiek on my Twitter feed and they even talk to me, which is something my ten year old self couldn’t have understood on any conceivable level. There’s always that voice in the back of my reptile brain that says, ”you just exchanged words with the guy who wrote that one story where Captain America did that thing, you’ve achieved all your life goals.”

(Just earlier today I had a conversation on there about whether or not the Vision had a wang, and Busiek actually got pretty heated about it. Turns out to be John Byrne’s fault that we would ever have thought the Vision didn’t have a wang, because of course Ultron builds his robots to be as anatomically correct as possible. I guess you had to be there.)

So yeah, to answer your question: the comics blogosphere just ain’t a thing anymore, leastwise not how it used to be. You’ve still got some bloggers out there, like me, but I think we’ve already reached the point where blogging is starting to be seen as something akin to CB radio. People do Tumblr - I even have a Tumblr - but it bears more than a passing resemblance, for me, to something like a Facebook timeline. Very informal, no real expectation of - well, anything, really. Lots of cat pictures. You were probably right never to get a blog yourself, whatever your reasons.

Yes, I definitely remember Neilalien. I remember all sorts of people I’ve never met which is… It’s an interesting feeling, isn’t it?  Wondering how someone you’ve never met is doing?   I didn’t even have a computer of my own that connected to the internet in 2000. I’d read about comics in the law school library after hours-- it’d be me and these legal eagles trying to find out the names of all the members of Def Leppard (which apparently was a tricky business, pre-Wikipedia).  

I don’t know-- we’re talking about these changes, but when I look at things now, I feel like you’re just starting to see glimmers of what everything is eventually going to be coming into existence.  Before, there was no online retail, so no matter what you wrote-- people couldn’t find the books.  None of it translated to the retailers.  Now, there’s online retail and at least some part of the population owns some kind of tablet situation, and word of mouth is theoretically easier than ever because everyone’s interconnected-- but is life any easier for anybody?  I don’t know-- I read some of those Monkeybrain books, say, Bandette or High Crimes or whatever, and it still looks like a tough road for all those guys.  I’m not writing about those guys either, granted, so maybe I don’t even get to say-- but how engaged am I in the world?  If anyone’s counting on me, they already lost.  Or I guess we’re in this weird era with Image where… I don’t really understand what’s going on, and maybe that’s where you’re seeing the benefits of online hooplah manifest, but I don’t know-- it sounds like a lot of that’s happening through the traditional retail channels just fine. I could never figure out “what was going on,” Big Picture, with comics, though, as long as I’ve been watching them...

But no, I never wanted a blog-- it always felt too “official”...?  I was just a message board guy after Title Bout and was fine being that; I needed to feel like I was a small part of a community (which I never thought a blog could do); but the message board era ended, and then what?  I spent a year intentionally not having an outlet-- and that was a miserable year.  I’d occasionally just go crazy in some comment section because… I’m someone who very much needs the outlet to be at equilibrium.  I find people who are like “just be positive on the internet”... I don’t want to be mean-- I’m just not into those people and what they have to say, for lots of reasons, but just the idea I have this choice to do things another way… I tried that shit, I tried the whole “just staying quiet” thing a few times, and man, it never worked.  Never.  I always ended up just this mess.  

I remember the first time I found out about comic people saying things about me “behind my back”-- having that moment of wondering how “me at age 13” would have reacted, but… that first time was a long time ago, and … that was not the last time, so.   Haha.  I don’t really seek out interactions with anybody anymore, but...

Anyways, during that year without an outlet, I started reading a lot of random people’s Tumblr blogs.  The funny thing is even there, even with Tumblr, Tumblr right now isn’t the Tumblr I signed up for anymore.  When I found it, Tumblr was this place for hip kids in LA and New York to interact, and tell funny little stories about dating, and share cool songs, and there were no comic people anywhere pushing their little egos out at the world-- it was this vale.  I’ve always wanted the vale.  Now Tumblr’s just people crazy-angry about social issues (and/or angry with the concept of humor, which they believe they understand-- these weird nonstop lectures about “what satire really is”) and reblogs of comic people *answering questions about LIFE and/or THE ONE TRUE WAY TO BE A WRITER* and… Not a lot of dating going on anymore, on the ol’ dashboard.  But the gifs are still pretty good, and where else am I going to go?  Need the outlet.  There’s an old Woody Allen quote, something like “Cloquet hated reality but it was the only place to get a decent steak.

There’s another Woody Allen quote I came across recently, something along the lines of, “my ex wife was afraid to leave me alone with our six-year-old adopted daughter, for no real reason whatsoever.” Wait, that’s not a real quote. I guess I’m seriously behind the power curve because I just found out about the whole maybe-kind-of-sort-of a child molester thing. And here I had thought all this time that the worst thing he ever did was get me to spend money to see Hollywood Ending in the theater. (That turned out to be a real Jay Leno joke, I’m sorry, but the point still stands, Hollywood Ending is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen in my life, and I haven’t seen anything of his since.)

I only started a blog because I was stuck alone in a cabin in the middle of the woods, and the only people I had to talk to were random comics people on the internet. True, sad, story. I used to send Chris Ryall these really frighteningly long e-mails about nothing much at all simply because I was bored and I thought if he liked me he’d let me have a column, which - God bless him - he never did. (He’s probably put some kind of restraining order out on me by now, I think. He doesn’t reply to my e-mails, I just stand outside his apartment holding up a boombox playing Ludacris while he calls the police.) Starting a blog gave me something to do - like you say, without some kind of outlet things just get kind of weird and rangey. But I’ve been doing it long enough that I guess I don’t feel the pressing need to be doing it all the time, either. It’s there when I want it, when I have the time, and when I don’t - well, let’s put up a picture of a cat on waterskis.

I think the urge has lessened over time partly because I write a lot for work. I write papers and grade student essays, and wouldn’t you know it I have to start thinking about a dissertation sometime soon here. Ask me a year from now when I’ve actually begun my dissertation, how big a priority cracking wise about Marvel’s latest boner is going to be in my life. I don’t know. You’re a lawyer, so I assume you write a lot for work whether you want to or not - maybe your perspective is different, but I think my writing is a zero-sum situation. If I write all day for work it doesn’t make me eager to sit down and write another hour or two for the edification of the internet.

Your perspective on Tumblr is funny - from my experience, Tumblr appears to be made up almost exclusively of teenagers / twentysomething girls who have Supernatural / Teen Wolf / Hannibal fan blogs. Seriously, I don’t know how this happened, but I ended up following all these weird pages and suddenly I know words like “Shotadean” and “Destiel” that mean literally less than nothing - it’s not that they’re words I don’t understand, it’s that they’re not words at all, they’re anti-words. Go back in time, ask Derrida what “Wincest” means, see if he can explain it, because I certainly can’t. (He’d be all, “just please tell me I don’t die of pancreatic cancer,” and I’d have to say, “well, brah . . .”) And yet I never actually unsubscribe to these blogs because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, which is a bad way to live your life.

I guess that brings me around to the part of the conversation where I ask impertinent questions for no reason other than I’ve always been curious . . . I remember back when you were writing Title Bout, I think it was then, you were studying for the bar. And now you’re a bonafied lawyer, working in Beverly Hills. Which, I’m sorry - I guess I don’t really understand what lawyers do, because I just assume LA lawyers cruise around like Corbin Bernsen, making the gun-finger gesture at random gals in the stenographer pool. But I realize full well that’s probably not always the case, because I know other lawyers and they just seem tired all the time. (I know a woman who works in immigration law and it sounds like the most exhausting job in the world.) All of which is a very boring way of saying - I teach college kids. I teach writing, and one of the things I ask them is, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Maybe it’s a biased sample because I work at a school renowned for the biological sciences, but everyone says they want to be a doctor, nurse, or veterinarian. No one ever says they want to be a lawyer. So, um, how did you wind up as a lawyer.

Lack of imagination? (That’s my little joke).  I have a bachelors in biochemistry.  I took a year off before going to grad school to be a scientist, during which time I realized (a) I didn’t have the talent or temperament to be a scientist, and (b) I needed to get out of my parent’s house-- needed to stop living at home as an adult.  So: law school.  It’s not an uncommon story-- law school, there are people there because that was their “dream” but I wouldn’t say that’s the majority.  Or that it should be a “dream” job, even-- it’s really not a job for everybody.  

I’m a litigator which means I help out on lawsuits-- I mostly handle the writing-end of lawsuits.  For me, the job’s a lot of writing-- I focus on that more than the other bits.  From what I’ve seen, immigration law seems a little rougher emotionally… pretty different gig detailwise though-- different kinds of attorneys have different gigs.  Or my lifestyle is very different from an attorney at another firm, depending on the firm, say.

It suits me, at least for right now.  When it’s going well, I can see it in continuum with the rest of what I do, which is … I’m not a toxic waste lawyer or whatever, I don’t represent tobacco companies or anything like that, so I’d like to think my job is at its root helping people.  And so I can tell myself (on a good day, at least) that I help people in my day job, try to make things for people as a hobby, and for fun, I share neat things with people that hopefully they’ll like, online, and … I can “pretend” like there’s some continuity there, that I’m not just some selfish maw, just some “consumer.”  Which I think it’s really easy to feel like now, with binge watching and everything else going on-- or maybe I can’t speak for anyone else on that point, but at least I worry that my default is to selfishness and sloth, so I can sometimes pretend to myself that I’m fighting my default settings some, which is swell. Plus, my job means when I do something on my own, I can just go do it and I don’t ever have to worry about “monetizing” being creative, which matters a lot to me (especially where comics are concerned-- everyone working in comics are creating $4 crossover comics “for the love”... oh, love...).

You know, there are rough days, too, though. It’s a job.  

Fighting default setting seems to be a big thing lately. I’ve just now reached the point in my program where I recognize I need to become an entirely different person in order to do the work that is going to be expected of me - I have terrible, awful, no good work habits. Great ambition, poor follow-through, sort of my life story. I’m really, really not a video game player, I need to stress that, but I nevertheless have these bouts of addictive behavior where if I download something really pointless like one of those Civilization games, I say to myself, “yeah, only gonna do this when I’m talking on the phone or watching TV,” and then next thing you know it is four in the morning and my back is sore from being hunched over the computer screen. And meanwhile Hegel sits there, unloved. “All-New, All-Different” ways to put off work.

I think, on the whole, you made the wise decision. A PhD in Biochemistry could probably open up more doors than a PhD in English (ha ha ha) but you’d still be stuck on a pretty demanding treadmill for the rest of your days. Leastwise most Humanities professors don’t have to spend much of their time hunting down corporate cash to fund basic research. Buy me a book and I’m good to go.

I’m simplifying immensely, but STEM PhD’s really do look down on the Humanities, its kind of crazy how once you get to grad school you see that all the stereotypes about higher learning are more or less true. The Humanities are filled with a mixture of rich WASPS whose parents summer in Zurich, and then poor kids with a massive chip on their shoulder because they had to work twice as hard as the rich WASPS who still walk around like they own the place (even though the place was long ago bought lock stock and barrel by Monsanto, the Pentagon, and the NCAA, and everyone who doesn’t feed those beasts is a tick to be rubbed off). And then the STEM people act like a graduate degree in the Humanities is a cute little affectation, and meanwhile the highest level of culture a professor of Mathematics can hope to attain is memorizing Klingon verb forms. So yes, you made the right decision: scientists are terrible people, basically. I avoid them and they avoid me. 

I’m not about to make any lawyer jokes - most lawyers, even the ones in “poor” advocacy fields like environmental law or civil rights, still make more money in a year than I’ll make, well, maybe in three years, probably? If I can find a good job in my field? (Which is a big “if.”) It would be funny if “pedantic literature professor” weren’t literally the only job on the planet to which I am both temperamentally suited and intellectually qualified. (I spent my twenties trying to be a novelist, but then I realize that trying to be a novelist in your twenties is a terrible idea because you don’t have anything to write about but the girls who jilted you in high school. Cool story, bro.)

So that brings us around to something else I wanted to cover - you make funny comics, which I don’t think (although I’m not sure? maybe? you know better than me) as many people know about as they do your writing. But they are very funny, and deserve as wide an audience as they can find. What’s more, I think you put a lot of effort not just into telling jokes - which is fine and noble in its own right - but how best to tell jokes online. How do I describe what I’m trying to say? Most webcomics, even the good ones, work in a pretty traditional format - they put up a page or a strip every day, or every other day. Since he’s moved to once-a-week updates, Chris Onstad makes Achewood in roughly the dimensions you imagine a newspaper sunday strip would be, if they were blown up and printed, for instance, when there’s really no reason he has to do that other than convention.


But rereading InsensitiveVeterinarians the other day, I was struck by how well you use the dimensions of the scrolling page to pace the timing of your jokes. Having so many silent panels - so many “beats” to get to the punchline (or rather, the next build-up, since the point seems to be constantly suspend the moment where the normal punchline would otherwise go - like following up “Mutilation of the male genitalia . . .” with “. . . prank phone calls aren’t so bad, necessarily.”) - would be maddening in a paper comic. It would be a three-hundred page book that took twenty-minutes to read. But online it works because the time it takes you to scroll down the page to the next beat is precisely the amount of time necessary for the reader to process the comedic pause. I’m not about to go spouting any of that Scott McCloud “infinite canvas” bullshit - “wearable tech is the ultimate killer app!” is still my go-to McCloud punchline - but you spend a lot of time thinking about how to use the medium you’ve got instead of the one you think you’re still auditioning for, if that makes sense.  
Anyway, I remember seeing something along the way where you said you weren’t completely satisfied with how Insensitive Veterinarians came out - I wonder if you could elaborate? Because I quite like it.  

Being a lawyer and webcomics?  This interview’s all deep cuts.  But okay, sure. I don’t know how many people read anything I write for other sites-- I don’t ask the numbers there, so I can’t compare webcomic numbers to anything.  And I don’t “promote” hardly anything-- I’m more “academically interested” in seeing how things spread by word-of-mouth and such.  (Like, I think it’s interesting that nobody’s gotten a cartoon character to spread around on tumblr, say-- the comics that spread on social media seem more Feels-related than, like, Steamboat Willy or Captain America punching out Hitler or whatever).  I wouldn’t know how to promote a webcomic if I wanted to--  I don’t know what a John Allison does, say, and he deserves readers more than I do...

Formatwise, I prefer a scrolling webcomic.  That’s how I read most of Naoki Urasawa, scrolling.  I caught onto him before he was translated, and so read most of his work in scanlated form, which meant scrolling through his books, which… his work is so visual and immediate, that it’s hard to imagine having a reading experience as overwhelming as that one was for me.  I read all of Monster in, like, less than a week, with a head cold-- that changed everything about how I thought about webcomics because that experience was so overwhelming.  And just for me, the most interesting thing with webcomics has been just being free of that need to fill every inch of a page with business, that you can’t have empty space on a page… That’s the fun part with webcomics-- you get to rethink everything, storytellingwise.  For a critically-inclined type, it’s heaven.

Insensitive Veterinarians… Look, I love everything I’ve ever made, but for having made it.  By virtue of the fact I sat down, made it and finished it.  I like the part where it’s done and I can go, “I did that, and that represents some part of who I was when I made that,” even if I know with webcomics especially… six months after I’m dead, everything I make evaporates.  I’m not around to pay the hosting fees-- it’s all whoosh, into the ether.  But that having been said… it’s not like your critical faculties disappear in the face of that (or at least mine don’t-- we’ve all seen the folks who get themselves nutty thinking their shit don’t stink but…).  

One, it didn’t catch with people. My big curiosity is how do you do longer form stories online that catch with people, but … Maybe the answer is that you’re better off going through a Comixology or something like that…? Maybe the people who are looking for longer stories, maybe they want to go to the “Longer story” store and get it from there. The webcomic I’ve done that people liked the most and link to the most is a Dracula thing I did which was the closest I’ve come to Adult Swim-- a short, short, all-joke comic. 6-page chapters.  The long, character-driven stuff … it may be I’m rolling a rock too steeply uphill. I’m as interested in the theory as the creative parts of what I do, and so it felt like that comic had challenges to making it accessible that I never solved and/or were unsolvable...

Two, on a creative level… for a comedy piece, my preference would be for the story to still work and function as a normal story, and I don’t know that comic does that.  I like my comedies to have a lot of jokes and silliness-- but that comic, the human part of that story, with the jokes subtracted, I felt like it didn’t go far enough.  I mean, how do you judge a thing?  I think it has to be by whether you put something personal out, something true, something that people relate to, some shit like that. And I just felt like it could’ve been realer there-- did I go far enough, cut deep enough?  The “stakes” could have been clearer and less arbitrary.  Characters’ reactions to one another’s behavior could have been realer.  That sort of thing all seems very important when you’re working on a thing….

Three, I feel like the opening chapter wasn’t funny enough, and it had to hook people to come back and read more.  As a pilot, it didn’t tell you enough about the main character-- the main character wasn’t being funny, so much as just listening to random characters talk and reacting to them.  I don’t know-- with a webcomic, it’s hard not to just be aware of all the other things people can do with their time rather than read your webcomic.  Because people looking at a thing, they are always on the internet.  With one click, bye, they’re watching cats eating dogs on youtube, or whatever.  No one’s bought anything so they have no incentive to stick around except what you give them to do that.  So me, I guess I overthink everything as a result of that.  (This must all be super-boring to read about.  I apologize).

And four, that comic had the opposite of a hook.  It was about “ladies in their 30’s, struggling to maintain their friendship in the face of mounting career disappointments.”  The classic stuff of comics!  You know, meanwhile, that Image expo just happened and it was all, like, “the characters from old German silent films are real and they’re all hip 20-somethings living in New York!” (And I’m not trying to pick on any particular book because there were, like, FOUR that sounded like that to me). All that high concept stuff that I don’t have a head for...

Meanwhile, I’ve got two shakily-drawn ladies in an office talking to one another for a shit-you-not 200+ pages!  I look at the stuff that’s popular at Image right now, or even in alternative comics and… I’m just off in the wilderness.  I don’t feel like I’m a part of much anything.  I’m not a part of a school.  I’m never going to be a part of anything like that: I’ve probably irritated too many people, burned too many bridges (I have irritated some people); I don’t ever want to do cons; I’m neither a beggar or a chooser in any ecosystem.  I already crossed “work in mainstream comics on my favorite character” off my bucket list, so, I’m not really sure what I can even aim at goal-wise anymore (and I never even aimed at that one, so).  Or… Or I’m basically a hockey goon, at this point, so has that meant more people have read my mediocre jokes than would have otherwise, or fewer people, or that I’ve been taken more seriously or less seriously, or do I even care or ...?  I don’t know.  Beats me.  The project I’ve been working on since July/August hasn’t been a comic and it’s been good to get away for a little while and try to clear my head…

Writing about comics is more fun, though.  It’s so much more fun.  That’s always been the biggest surprise because I always thought that wasn’t supposed to be true and there was some greater glory to be had doing something else but… I just think that’s the biggest lie out there.

To cover your last point first, I know exactly what you mean. There’s an idea out there - and I think you’re speaking to it precisely - on the part of certain writers-about-comics, or perhaps it would be better to say ex-writers-about-comics, that writing about comics is nowhere near as satisfying or worthwhile as making comics. And I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a part of me that envies people who have the guts to say that and back it up. Making comics on any level is hard work, and even if I once entertained fantasies of doing so, I’m far away from the point where it could be something to which I could ever reasonably devote any time. (And by “entertaining fantasies,” let’s be clear, I mean that I was convinced from more or less ages 11-17 that I was going to work in comics when I grew up, basically before I went to college [the first time] and realized that working in comics was a terrible, terrible life goal to have.) It’s something I think about, obviously. But there’s also that self-righteousness that comes from saying, “it’s more important to MAKE comics than TALK ABOUT other people’s comics!” You know, I’m sure, exactly the people I’m talking about.

And that’s well and good: that’s a decision you made and if you can actually produce comics, that’s great. If you can produce comics worth reading, well, more power to you. But don’t pretend you’re making some kind of principled stand - you have some ideas and free time, that’s all. I have ideas but I don’t really have free time, or rather, what free time I have is occupied by catching up on The Michael J. Fox Show. So the world must continue to wait on my “one boring dude moves into a house full of wacky women who are all inexplicably attracted to him and there’s a crazy robot somewhere too” webcomic. I know we’re supposed to be all “follow your bliss,” like it’s 1971 and we’re all attending Billy Jack’s desert Montessori School, but seriously, you’re not a special butterfly just because you make comics. Sour grapes? U-Decide!

But to back up a bit - this is exactly what I wanted to read about. Whether or not anyone reads this besides Tucker (hi Tucker!) is beyond me - who reads my blog? Who reads any blog anymore? I was interested in what you had to say about your own work because it seems to me as if you’re in a somewhat unique position, considering that as someone who has produced a moderately substantial body of work online, you’ve never made any pretences of the fact that you do it to please yourself and no one else. You said above that that’s one of the best things about your job: essentially, you can spend your free time being as creative or uncreative as you want, with no negative consequences.

I’m glad you mentioned John Allison, because he’s one of my favorite cartoonists. I think he’s criminally underrated - perhaps because he’s been doing consistently good work for so long that people take him for granted, or it could be that the British school / young adult milieu strikes some people as unnecessarily twee, I don’t know. But he’s a good example in this instance because he’s a working cartoonist who is very up-front about the fact that he doesn’t make as much money as he probably should, and the longer his career continues the more creative he has to be in order to bring in new readers to a strip that has been running in one form or another for over fifteen years. And again, I think he’s a great, truly skilled, and very funny cartoonist, with an admirable work ethic. But he works his ass off to sell the strip in a way that seems like - from someone on the outside looking in - a truly punishing grind. I don’t know if I have anything to add to that sentiment, really. It’s hard work and I wish all my best to anyone who has to pay rent based on a webcomic. 

If we can talk about comedy for a minute, I’m interested in how you described the Dracula book. You compare it to Adult Swim - which, I don’t know if you completely meant that as a pejorative? I love Adult Swim. The stuff they did in the first few years - before it became the dumpster dumping ground for Seth McFarlane’s taint babies - still holds up, and I will ride for Aqua Teen Hunger Force until I die. What they did that I really respect, and I think was immensely influential, is that they produced these twelve minute cartoons that didn’t have any room for anything but jokes. The characters were completely pointless as anything other than vehicles for punchlines. It’s an extension of the kind of thing shows like Seinfeld were doing, where the creators realized that the only reason these characters were funny was that they were terrible people, so any pretence of pathos or identification could be jettisoned entirely. The only difference with the cartoons was that they took away even the most basic empathy that comes with seeing another flesh-and-blood human being being tortured, so that every episode could be nothing but a cavalcade of injuries and explosions. The last season of Arrested Development, I think, was also trying for something very much in that vein.

When I read Dracula, I see something similar to that, in terms of the refusal to land on any single thread long enough for a meaningful narrative to cohere. It’s a shaggy dog story - and I love shaggy dog stories, that’s one of my favorite genres. You keep expecting Dracula to show up, his name is on the cover, but the fantastic adventures promised on the covers never arrive. You’re stuck in the house with these diphsits listening to them yell at each other about VD. Maybe it says something about me that I find that funny? I would have read 500 pages of that - but then, it’s probably best it was as short as it was. A joke like that can only be funny if it’s short and punchy or really long - if you had managed to get 500 pages out of them sitting around the house ordering Thai food or deciding what to get off the Pay-Per-View, that would have been truly magical.

Thank you for walking me through your thought process on that. “Deep cuts” or no, that’s precisely what I wanted to ask you about. I see your point about working to balance the jokes with the plot - that’s pretty much the history of comedy right there. Hollywood knew how to do that back in the 30s and 40s, I think. TV does it better now, I think most of the good sitcoms that everyone talks about have found a way to get the balance right. I just watched Community this week and even though it was a very funny episode, the bit at the end with Troy getting Pierce’s estate and having to go on the boat trip was a bit heavy handed, I think - precisely because, since Glover is leaving and Chevy Chase is already gone - they had to shoehorn “real” character development into the resolution of an episode, whereas usually they just put the character changes into the background to percolate while the main plot chugs along nonsensically, and then its six episodes later that you realize that some important things happened offscreen that are only revealed through the characters actions and the ways they relate to each other in the present. Pulling the character development to the foreground like that pulled me out because it felt false, like some kind of “very special moment” on a show that has historically been very careful with rationing out or camouflaging its “very special moments.”

I know you’re a big “comedy nerd,” you listen to all the podcasts and Dan Harmon’s proclamations and all of that. I’m not a big process junky for comedy, but it seems like trying to balance the needs of a joke-hungry beast while providing enough characterization for the comedy to be able to emerge from the characters themselves must be the hardest damn thing in the world. I really liked Netflix season of Arrested Development for just that reason, even if it’s probably the same reasons so many other fans didn’t - that season was really unremittingly dark, much darker than the Fox seasons. And it was especially dark because most of the characters had their private illusions completely stripped away. Instead of being impervious buffoons, they were all more or less demolished. The show was daring us to both laugh and empathize with unsympathetic people in the most dire straits possible, and it worked, and the fact that it worked was a minor miracle. But it put a lot of people off, I suspect, because it really left the audience no illusions about the fact that every character had passed over into being irredeemable.

Do you think you were able to strike the balance better in Left Field?

Left Field…?  Man, nobody read that-- that one was an experiment to see what would happen if you just put a 200+ page graphic novel into the world as a downloadable cbz file, pre-Comixology, pre-tablets, and it just … The answer was no one will ever know.  

Did I get the balance between jokes and character better on that one?  I don’t know-- that comic was just unique in that I actually drew every page from scratch, no clip art, plus it was all hand-drawn on paper initially, so it’s just such a different memory to me-- it was so much more work.   (The iffy bit with Left Field is it’s a baseball comic made by someone who very palpably knows nothing about baseball-- I watched it a bunch and read some books about baseball managers and all that, and then just went off, forgot everything, and based everything on, like, Major League 2…).  

I think the tricky thing for people with comedy is … I think a funny comedy, the characters are usually psychopaths or losers.  You see that especially with teen movies where American Pie has just terrible character after terrible character in it, but it’s got Stifler (psychopath) and it’s got a kid fucking a pie (loser) so it worked enough off the energy of those two. Community, Arrested Development, SeinfeldCommunity, especially: while Britta’s the “pretty girl” that character doesn’t work at all; as soon as they figure out she’s a loser, that becomes the show’s best character.  See also, Winston on New Girl.  But with Hollywood-- the people who make shows, they’re all rich beautiful kids who had lovely parties in their time in the Greek system.  I see them walking around.  So you end up with these movies about, like-- most of the city I live in are writing these terrible things about “So-and-so is a lady’s man who has sex real easily, but then his kid makes a wish at the local wishing well, and now he has to learn how hey maybe he should just fuck one lady, learn to live with that.” And occasionally they even make those movies, so you end up with Due Date or whatever that Zac Efron comedy coming out is (Zac Efron probably learned lots about the COMEDY of life, while he was hanging out at hair salons and champagne brunches) or, you know, every sitcom “by the people who brought you the show Friends.”  (Anyone who ever wrote for the show Friends got their own show and they’ve all failed because they learned to write for Jennifer Aniston).  You end up with Jason Sudeikis movies.

I’m pretty suspicious of “Oh, only British people understand irony and/or blabbity blah” (that whole thing reaching its “go fuck yourself” zenith with … I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Neil Gaiman talk about how British comic writers of the 80’s were better because they read books…. OOOOH, tell us yokels more about your book-learnin’...).  But British comedy, they are allowed to go harder at letting a thing be unlikable-- what Chris Morris managed to do with Four Lions alone… mind-boggling.  Like, even Spaced, which isn’t aggressive in that way at all, Simon Pegg is drinking, drug-using, bitter about his ex-girlfriend-- he’s this mess, while … With an American thing, it’s always like “the main character’s a neat-freak Nice Guy but oh boy, his best friend says WACKY things about the ladies and has uncombed hair.”  A bad comedy, they always shunt off all negative human characteristics onto a “best friend” character…

So, I guess I probably did a better job of having the characters in Left Field conform to that than Vets where I got away from it more than I should’ve.  The main characters in Left Field were losers; the romantic comedy part ends with the couple having bad sex (hopefully with the implication that the sex is incest-y).  They’re all surrounded by psychos who-- I don’t know how much vomit I drew into that comic...  I was always proud that comic’s big finale were these idiots blowing up a rehab clinic rather than learn their lesson.  I always liked my ending.  With Insensitive Vets, I remember struggling more [with] trying to make the main character desperate, and that’s where that whole opening sequence of her hating her clients came from, to give her something to be desperate to get away from, but I don’t think it was as effective, or effective enough maybe.  I don’t know that the desperation got communicated since it didn’t manifest in the main character doing something, instead of just receiving a thing…?  I mean, the math there always eluded me-- I could show her struggling with bills but that’d have just been hacky and… The funniest thing being in real life?  Veterinarians killing themselves is not unheard of.  Some numbers I’ve seen, they rival dentists.  Dentists.  

(That’s why, for me, the undisputed best comedy in comics is still Why I Hate Saturn-- the main character in that is just the biggest disaster.  Even though it’s about the Crazy Sister, she’s never just being the straight man… It’s constantly giving her no choice to be otherwise, to be anything but a mess because it talks you through her little world’s terrible value system...).

I mean, the essence of the thing, the best thing, the very best thing with comedy than anything else is that “feeling less alone about the crazy stuff” part.  That’s the point of everything, every kind of art, I guess-- that which cracks the internal ice or whatever that quote is-- but … with a comedy, it’s that alchemy of taking all the bad or pathetic stuff a person’s got going on and saying it’s okay to laugh at it… I’m a big ol’ mess so I need to hear that shit, like, ALL THE TIME.  

That is such a great line I’m tempted to cut the interview there and have that be the final stinger - this thing is getting long enough that we have to be trying even Tucker’s patience by now. I’ll just say this is perhaps the first time I’ve ever heard anyone speak fondly of American Pie - the only thing I remember from that movie is Shannon Elizabeth, and not because she is a great comedienne, if you know what I mean.

I think the best television comedy right now is probably not American - as much as I love Community - I even liked parts of Season 4 - it’s in eclipse; Parks & Rec is going through some changes right now, and it could either find a new groove after the new status quo hits, or it could flounder. Either way, both shows had surprisingly long runs, so if they fall down now they still gave us a lot more than we ever expected. I love New Girl, but it’s nowhere near as funny as either of those shows. To its credit, it’s not really trying to be, but its an actor’s show in ways that the other two aren’t. (What do I mean by that? I don’t know if I could quantify it . . . I might be completely off-base. Those are just the words that fall out of my fingers right now.) The best comedy on TV, even if it goes years between new seasons, is Peep Show, probably the best post-Office squirm-based comedy. The characters are terrible, pitiful people who keep falling further and further from the middle-class as the seasons progress, partly because they’re idiots, but also partly because they keep doing terrible things and deserve all the misfortune they receive. It’s great, but not a lot of people know about it because it never quite achieved the same stateside cache as, obviously, The Office, but also things like Black Books and Spaced which became very popular over here. It hinges on the fact that David Mitchell and Robert Webb have no problem allowing themselves to be profoundly humiliated over and over again. I don’t think there’s anything funnier on TV, even if they appear to be stuck putting out only six episodes every two years or so. I hope they do it forever, just checking in on Mark and Jez every couple of years until they die, like a dystopian Seven Up!

I agree that I don’t see any point to the constant comparison of British and American comedy - look, we Americans like to believe people can remain friends after insulting each other mercilessly for 22 minutes, that’s OK. It’s part of our national mania to be liked above all else, even if we’re physically assaulting someone. “Hey, here’s a drone strike on your wedding - but why don’t you like meeeeee?” Doesn’t mean we can’t be funny, and to a degree the constant desire to be liked even in the midst of doing terrible things can be a productive tension - that’s where Arrested Development lives. But that’s our weird national pathology, the British obviously do not have that to fight against.

So, considering that we could probably continue indefinitely in some form or another without any outside check, perhaps I should stop imposing on your good will and try to wrap things up some way - there’s a dorky formulation of a final question that I’m trying hard to avoid, something along the lines of the old Barbara Walters, “what’s next for Abhay Khosla?” chestnut . . . but that’s a terrible question. The better question is, if God came down from Heaven tomorrow and decided it was time to separate the sheep from the goats, send all the sinners to hell and save all the righteous, is there a single soul in any corner of the comics industry who deserves to be saved? Or are my suspicions correct that we are all basically doomed?  

Well, most comic people I’ve ever met have been basically pretty great.  There’ve been a few *profound* exceptions to that, but at this point, I’ve had interactions, social or otherwise (including in real life, not just online) with people at almost every level of comics-- fans, retailers, writers, artists, editors, behind-the-scenes people, Hollywood types, and us critics. And yeah, there were few people in there that I took one look at and was like “You?  You-- no.  Not you.  No to you.” (Though even there I was pretty wrong about at least two of those people). But for the most part, I haven’t had terrible experiences. Some people like metal WAY more than I do; some people like metal way less than I do; in genral, comic people generally care about culture and stuff like that, reading, the values that go along with reading, in a way that isn’t always the case with the general population.  The hardest working people in comics I’ve met have been comic editors, and the people who I’ve met who care the most have been comic retailers.  (And yet, who gets demonized more in comics than those two groups, who gets held up more as “the bad guys”?  Just fans).  For the most part, I’ve been the worst guy in the room. Pretty spectacularly a couple of those times.  

But yet, comics...  

In that last round of talk about the sex harassment in comics, all the key people would say the same thing-- so-and-so doesn’t matter; it’s the culture.  And I think that’s basically right.  A culture that’s as hostile to critical thinking as comics-- well, how much can we expect of it?  When Tucker was like, “Hey would you like to do a guest thing”-- I didn’t think there’d be enough stuff to write about, and instead, there were TWO VERY FULL YEARS of people putting egg on their face.  I couldn’t even get to everything-- there was too much stuff!  A culture that isn’t self-critical is going to have stuff coming out of its ears.  There was this blog entry by some d-list comic creator that got spread around late last year, like a “What I’ve Learned” and #2 was “never say anything negative.”  Or wait-- he even prefaced it with, “I don’t think it makes me a phony but I think it’s important to never say anything negative.”  Which-- it absolutely makes them a phony!  Telling people “only present a face to the world that makes people like you more” makes you a phony! That is the fucking textbook definition of being a phony.  And this was one of those things that got spread around as “good advice for aspiring pros” or whatever.  When Before Watchmen got announced, I once watched comic creators stifle dissent in the ranks on Twitter in real time-- but one guy was like, “That doesn’t sound--” and it was a pile-on from all these other mainstream creators with their little “don’t be a hater” logic.  All the tweets got deleted within 15 minutes.  Like it never happened, all to tweet heaven.  You could see it happen with that sex harassment thing-- as soon as it turned out to be a Marvel creator, I think a lot of people got silent fast with their little “let’s all be better people” talk.  The Ghost Rider guy, when all that happened-- you could hear a pin drop on some parts of the internet...

The stuff that I’m always sitting her gobsmacked about and having to write about is so fucking simple and so basic and so remedial… Don’t harass women.  Please don’t say racist things on Facebook.  Don’t run a national hate group that tries to deprive people of their rights.  Respect the people who came before you, who paved the way for you-- that one trips up so many people! Don’t tell Alan Moore to fuck himself if your entire career depended upon Alan Moore existing. Appreciate that comics is actually a thing greater than you, that you’re a participant in, rather than some vehicle for your shitty ego.  Don’t spread lies in your industry through Rich Johnston about getting blowjobs in janitor closets (because that’s something we have to say now!).  Your comic probably doesn’t need that rape in it.  Your comic probably doesn’t need that rape in it.  Your comic probably doesn’t need that rape in it.  Try to stop avoiding minorities so much-- they can be nice people, too.  Not all of your pants need to be blue-jeans; they make other kinds of pants.  Don’t have the celebratory photo of your Expo be a bunch of bros rocking their most special pair of blue-jeans, and then get huffy when someone points out that the Expo looks like it was a smelly denim-clad sausage party-- just take a better photo!  Think about the culture you want to be a part of and talk about that culture, out loud, and not just to market yourself to tumblr.

But… but… speaking of Tucker, Tucker wrote a thing in 2010 or whenever, end of the last decade, not sure when, that I thought was some true shit, that everything great about the last decade-- that all happened despite the people working in comics.  All the people in comics who talked for YEARS about how women don’t want to read comics-- the manga boom didn’t happen because of those people; it happened in spite of those people; it happened because women just wanted to read comics.  He said it all better, or with that nuance shit, but… The spectacular rise of the literary graphic novel; all the reprint material-- those happened because of readers, and because of a few hard-working key people at smaller publishers. Because if you asked the Experts?  The Experts are just creeps! “Women don’t want comics; kids don’t want comics; the bad guys are retailers; the bad guys are over-entitled comic fans; the way you judge if a comic is good is by looking at the sales charts”-- I heard years of that shit, years of it. Comics constantly want to put creators are the hero in some narrative, and fans as the villains, and goddamn, was that ever the opposite of what I watched transpire with my two fucking eyes.  

And so, nah, I don’t think anyone’s actively bad or doomed or anything-- at the end of the day, comic fans are so generous with their enthusiasm that I think people will be fine, if spectacularly and grotesquely unappreciative of why.  People aren’t going to share my tastes, or worse, they’re going to like things that I think are pretty dodgy, but… good stuff will muddle through.  You know: They’re just pretty neat little objects, the comics.  It’s just drawings on paper stapled together.  You don’t even need the staples anymore... 


mateor said...

I read Left Field...also I am a scientist, so suck balls Tim.


Tim Callahan said...

Thanks for this!

Anonymous said...

For the record, Left Field was my favorite of Abhay's offerings. It had that vibe, like reading achewood or even 8 bit theater/dr mcninja/antihero for hire the first time, that vibe where you realized that people don't have to draw good to make extraordinarily funny comics. And there was just so much of it, the archive could just wash all your more pressing concerns away. Good times.

Interesting point on scrolling pages. People have written at length on the subject, but none seem to argue the case as simply or effectively as you guys. It's food for thought. Are the standard "light scrolling" webcomics the worst of both worlds? Or is there an addictive/attention holding quality in scrolling slightly downward to read the entire comic, then clicking the next button?

LostHisKeysMan said...

So many names have come and gone in online comics circles that it's difficult to remember specifics at times. The line in this interview about wondering how people you've never met are doing definitely resonates with me. We don't give enough credence to the idea that these semi-anonymous internet posts actually impact the lives of others, even when we're just complaining about Black Lightning or whatever.