Interview with Paris-based arts journal Kilometer Zero,
conducted via email in October of 2001.
To start, could I get some biographical detail? What is your date of birth? What is the name of the college you dropped out of? What is the time line of your movement from NYC to SF back NYC? When were you married? Do you have children?
I was born on April 5, 1961 in Wichita, Kansas. We moved to Michigan and then to Iowa City, Iowa, by the time I was five--foreshadowing the impermanence and dislocation, which have defined much of my life, I suppose. My parents divorced when I was about ten, and I went off with my mother and spent the next few years living in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, Stone Mountain, Georgia--birthplace of the modern Ku Klux Klan--and a couple of very small towns in Arkansas, before going back to live with my father in Iowa City to finish high school and spend about a year and half attending the University of Iowa, which brings us in a roundabout way to the answer to your second question. I moved to New York City for the first time in 1981, and spent the first month or so sleeping on the floor of a friend-of-a-friend's flat in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. The neighborhood has gentrified considerably since those days, when stores along Fifth Avenue would stock maybe three items--a candy bar, a single record album, something like that--and have a Prohibition-style shutter set into a door in the back where the real business of the store was conducted, in five and ten dollar transactions. And prostitutes would solicit business as you came up out of the subway in the shadow of the Grand Army Plaza Arch at night, something that's hard to imagine in Park Slope today. A group of friends and I then moved to Williamsburg, which has become an exceedingly hip artists' colony, but which was in those days just a strange intersection between Puerto Rican immigrants and Hassidic Jews, with the occasional starving artist thrown in here and there. I remember that our back window looked out on a burned out building, and an overgrown lot with a junked, overturned car, though there was no clear path to the street wide enough for a car to have been brought through, at least that I could ever see. There were four of us living in a three-bedroom apartment -- one guy dragged in a bunch of old wooden packing pallets and partitioned off a section of the living room for privacy. We were all dirt poor--I was living on about $100 a week, which was no mean feat in New York City even in 1981. I used to pretty much survive on ramen noodles and, when I really felt I could afford to splurge, the occasional slice at Ben's pizza. I was really, really skinny when I left New York. I worked on a magazine about comics for awhile, and then when the magazine folded, drifted through a succession of crappy jobs -- making copies, doing picture framing, things like that. The magazine's office was in Tribeca, as was the art supply store where I was a picture framer, and eighteen years later, I'd have a loft studio in the neighborhood for awhile, so the whole World Trade Center area was my back yard for a lot of my time in New York.
After a couple of years of living hand-to-mouth like this, with no particular focus, I moved back to Iowa City, spent a little more time in college before following a girlfriend to Champaign-Urbana and then to Chicago, at which point I decided I'd had enough of Midwestern winters and headed to San Francisco. This would be right at the end of 1984.
I actually stayed put in San Francisco for about twelve years--which is, I believe, the longest I've lived in one place in my entire life--and would probably be there to this day, but I fell in love with an East Coast girl and for various reasons, the only way to make it work was to move back East for awhile. That was about five years ago now, and we've been married for two and a half years. And strangely, this long circuitous route led me back to Park Slope, where we live, though as I say the neighborhood isn't quite as funky as it used to be. We have no children yet but I think that may change within the next year or two.
Who were your early influences? Who are the most important cartoonists
Well, earliest influences would go back to the stuff I was reading as a little kid--Mad magazine, Peanuts, and when I was a bit older, Doonesbury. I can't overstate the importance of Mad magazine at that time--in that long ago time before society became drenched in irony, it was Mad that taught us to distrust advertisers, politicians, and the media, and I guess it was probably Mad that taught me that cartooning was an effective way to communicate with people. Peanuts, I just loved for its whimsy and creativity--at the time, nothing else pushed the envelope the way that strip did. I was lucky enough to have lunch with Charles Schulz in maybe '93 or '94--I just sent him a note and he invited me up to Santa Rosa one afternoon. Really an incredibly sweet man.
As I got older, I read pretty much every underground comic I could get my hands on (Zap, and maybe more importantly Zippy the Pinhead, which was also hugely influential) and went through a Marvel phase (X-Men, Ditko's Spiderman, Kirby's Fantastic Four, that sort of thing).
As for cartoonists working today, I think I'm going to deftly dodge this question by, um, not answering it. I'm too close to the profession to be able to judge what's "important," and anything I saw will inevitably be judged in the context of my own work, i.e., if I say "the only important cartoons are four panel political cartoons with a lot of text"--which I don't believe, just to be clear-- then that's clearly more about me than it is about the state of cartooning. There are cartoonists I like and cartoonists I don't -- and I've been admittedly critical of some artists in the past--but these days, I kind of think that anyone who plugs away at this thing day after day, week after week, deserves a certain amount of respect, whatever it is they're doing, because those deadlines are relentless.
What kind of cartooning did you start out with? (I've read something
about you initially being less political and concentrating on American
culture and over consumption. I was wondering if there was something more
As a kid--and I mean, maybe eight or nine years old--I'd draw these Mad magazine-style movie parodies, one-pagers, things like that (on lined notebook paper, of course). Unfortunately with all the moves, none of that stuff survived. Later on I experimented with various newspaper strip formats, different things like that--but this was all stuff I was trying to develop because I thought maybe I could sell it to a syndicate. What I was really excited about were these collage-comic hybrids I was experimenting with, which were more about consumerism and technology. That's where the look of my strip really began to develop. Like a lot of--though not all-- cartoonists, I have an admittedly limited artistic range, which reminds me of something Schulz said once in some interview, something to the effect of: "If I was a really good writer, I'd be writing novels. If I were a really good artist, I'd be painting pictures. I'm sort of good at both, so I'm a cartoonist." Cartooning is an art form in which the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts, but I do believe both parts have to be there. I obviously come at this with a great respect for the written word, which is somewhat suspect in a cartoonist--I've been taken aside more than once by well-meaning mainstream editorial cartoonists who suggest that the success of a cartoon is inversely proportionate to the number of words it contains--but as I say, I grew up on Mad magazine, where text always had equal billing with images. Sometimes a single image can sum up a complex idea, and sometimes it simply can't. And the thing about this art form is that it is wide enough to contain all of these different permutations. There's no one single way a cartoon must look. Some of my favorite cartoonists couldn't draw their way out of a paper bag--though it's hard to imagine a scenario in which they would have to--but are nonetheless brilliant. On the other hand, I am in awe of many artists whose artistic abilities surpass my own by a factor of about, oh, say, ten trillion, but whose writing can fall flat. But there's room for all of these approaches.
If what I have read is true, a 1991 anti-Gulf War protest was a
turning point in your cartoon's philosophy. Can you describe this event
in detail? Where in San Francisco was the rally held? What was the
weather like that day? What were your reasons for attending? How did this
day end up changing your cartoon?
It was a glorious, sunny day in San Francisco, but that's most days in San Francisco, outside of the rainy season (what outlanders refer to as "winter"). One of the hardest things about moving back east is the weather--oppressive humidity throughout the summer, a couple of weeks of pleasant temperatures, and then you begin the long slow slide into winter. I'm afraid I have a tendency to point this out more than I should to those around me, but I look at it this way: if a man leaves civilization and goes to live among savages, he will inevitably wax nostalgic about refrigeration, indoor plumbing, things like that. This cycle of humidity-to-freezing is an intelligence test, and anyone who puts up with it has failed. But I digress.
The story you mention has gotten somewhat simplified over the years--and this is mostly my own fault--because if you go back and look at the earlier stuff, there was always a political context to the work. But it had never really occurred to me to think of myself as a political cartoonist. The day you mention specifically, I went to one of many rallies against the Gulf War, in which there were thousands and thousands of people marching, as far back as you could see--and then went home to see it effectively dismissed as an unimportant aberration on the evening news. I called up the TV station and yelled at their answering machine, which was less than satisfying, and then I suddenly realized--and this seems painfully obvious in retrospect--that I had a little public forum of my own.
What is your opinion of the current state of media and journalism in
the USA? You rejected Time and were rejected by Brill1s and US News and
World Report because of your content and it seems even Saturday Night
Live wanted to censor you. Do you have faith in mainstream media?
As I write these words it's been two weeks since the attack on the World Trade Center and the mainstream media are in full flag-waving mode, so I would have to say that my always-shaky faith is less than bolstered at the moment. I turned down Time because I just couldn't figure out how to do cartoons in that small space they have without letting my work devolve into cheap gags about the news. At the same time, I was offered a larger spot in US News--this was during Jim Fallows' short-lived time as editor--and chose that instead. But the readership of US News skews old and conservative, and they really had no idea what to make of my cartoons, and I was quickly dropped--apparently by order of the publisher personally. It was not, as Fallows would later remark, a marriage made in heaven.
Saturday Night was a different story. I had a development deal with them a few years ago, which sort of fell in my lap--before this I had given almost no thought to animation, so it was like being dropped in behind the wheel of a race car barreling down the track and you don't even know how to drive. I spent a lot of time on that project, working with a team of animators, trying to come up with something that had some integrity to it--and trying to fight off the pressure from SNL to squeeze in as many cheap shots as possible, T&A jokes, racial stereotypes--I kid you not--it was a very difficult time. I wanted to do political satire and they wanted cheap quick humor, and I suppose it was again not a marriage made in heaven. We produced three pieces, all of which I think hold up pretty well, but the SNL people just thought about stuff way too much--they'd decide on Friday night that a piece needed a half second shaved off so it would flow better and there wouldn't be time to get it done before airtime, so we'd lose another shot at getting on the air. Darryl Hammond, who did Clinton on the show, did a Clinton voice for one of the cartoons, and one of the objections was that viewers would be confused, watching the cartoon and hearing Darryl's voice. Crazy stuff like that, but I guess that's how TV works--too many people obsessing over insignificant details. My usual work pattern is the complete opposite of this--I don't even show my stuff to editors, I just send it out and they run it--so you can imagine how much fun this was, having every microsecond scrutinized and endlessly debated--particularly in light of what *does* make it on the air on that show, those tedious endless sketches with Goat Boy or whatever. And the really painful thing was that on several occasions, the cartoons were slated to possibly run--but I would never know ahead of time if they were going to actually make it on the air or not. So I spent a lot of painful Saturday nights wondering if my stuff would make it on. Went to a couple of dress rehearsals as well --SNL does a full dress right before the actual show, with several sketches that never make it on the air. Yes, you read that right--as dreadful as many of their skits are, there's a full half hour more that doesn't even make it to broadcast.
This was all going on while I was (a) being kicked out of my illegal studio in Tribeca and (b) planning for my wedding, so things were kind of crazy for awhile. I never got anything on the air, which gave my work the stench of death as far as the SNL people were concerned, and the whole project was pretty much abandoned after the end of that season. I can't say I was sorry to be done with it, though in retrospect, it wasn't an altogether negative experience--I teamed up with the animator that I'm working with now, producing online animations, for one thing.
What is the role of an artist like yourself when it comes to politics
and activism? Why don't you just do a cute cartoon about overweight cats?
You do what you have in you. I think the people who do cartoons about overweight cats genuinely believe in what they're doing. I don't think it's something you can fake. As for the first question, I have no good answer for you. I just do what I do and hope that it strikes a chord with someone.
Why are there always references to your criticism of Dilbert?
I did one cartoon about Dilbert, back when that strip was first taking off and constantly being written up in newspapers and magazines as the voice of the downsized, that sort of thing, and I was bothered by that, in the same way that I was bothered by Bill Clinton's politics being defined by his conservative opponents as far left, when in fact he was very firmly planted in the middle of the road. If Clinton is defined as the furthest to the left it is possible for any human being to possibly go, then anyone to the left of Clinton is simply no longer relevant, no longer exists in the political debate. Similarly if the critique in Dilbert defines the discussion vis-à-vis corporate downsizing, then that discussion is severely limited. Dilbert's a fine comic strip for what it is--I did enough office work to enjoy it on that level--but it is a comic strip about people who work in cubicles and are resigned to their fate. It is not a comic strip about the fate of the downsized, or the corporate mindset responsible. It does not champion the oppressed, in the way that those articles suggested--it's more about commiseration with the daily grind. And that's fine, and the strip does that well--it just doesn't go any further than that, and I don't think Scott Adams, the cartoonist, pretends otherwise. As to why this always comes up--I have no idea. It was something that I was thinking about one week, maybe six, seven years ago. Which is all any of these cartoons really are, ultimately--just something I was thinking about one week. They're like conversations you might have with the guy on the next barstool, except that they are archived and preserved for all time, so you find yourself constantly being called on to defend some barstool conversation you had in 1993.
What are the most important political and social issues you work with
in your cartoon? I've noted reoccurring themes such as a call for
universal health care in the US, a pro-environment stance, attacks on
campaign financing and the two party system and attempts to pierce Al
Gore's mask of liberalism.
I think you answer the question as you ask it. Certainly the pathetic state of the U.S. health care system is something I have returned to time and again, as well as the other things you mentioned. I guess the common thread is that all of these issues have been simplified into sound bites which do not in fact reflect reality--the notion, for instance, that a single payer health care system means that government bureaucrats will be assigning you a doctor and denying you necessary medical care. As recently as this summer, I got email from someone taking me to task on this one, and I'm thinking--does this guy live on the same planet I do? Does he have to deal with an HMO like I do? And he's complaining about the *possibility* of some huge, obstructionist bureaucracy?
Do you follow politics in other countries? What foreign political
systems and social policies do you find inspiring? Where would you live
if it wasn't the USA?
There's nowhere else I'd rather live. By way of expanding on that, I want to reprint something I wrote for the web log I've been keeping since Sept. 11:
I'm going to go way out on a limb here and suggest that some of you probably think that Rush Limbaugh is a complete moron--an advocate of a short-sighted, me-first, I-got-mine-Jack philosophy, a philosophy of greed and self-interest the cost of which will be paid by our children and grandchildren for decades to come. But here's the question: as destructive as you consider his views, would it ever even occur to you to accuse him of being a traitor, of being "un-American"?
The correct answer, for the purposes of this essay, is "no, of course not, Tom." Chances are you just don't think in those terms.
But let's say there is a fellow who is obsessed with much that is distinctively American, from comic books to roadside diners to Airstream trailers. And let's say that he has the means to travel to pretty much any exotic locale which strikes his fancy, but has chosen more than once to spend his vacation time instead exploring the blue highways and roadside attractions of his own land, because it is what he likes to do.
And let's also postulate that our hypothetical American citizen believes profoundly in the ideals of our democracy--but frequently finds fault with the actions of our leaders, particularly when they are in clear conflict with those ideals. Let's say he's raises a question or two about the wisdom of our forthcoming military adventure.
Do you imagine for a moment that Rush and his followers would hesitate to denounce this fellow as "un-American"?
The correct answer is again, "no, of course not, Tom."
I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Do conservatives and hawks really believe that anyone not in line with their view of America is in fact secretly sympathetic to he Taliban? Secretly rooting for the terrorists and mass murderers?
Actually, on some level they do, and that's the frightening thing. You've heard it by now: anyone who suggests that the terrorists were not acting in a geopolitical vacuum is immediately shouted down, scorned for suggesting that America "deserved" this attack.
I've got a little bit in common with that hypothetical fellow above, and I'll tell you: I am getting truly irritated by the latter-day McCarthyism springing up around me. Exercising that "freedom to disagree" to which our president gave lip service the other night does not make one a traitor. Freedom of speech doesn't mean anything if it exists conditionally. And exercising that freedom of speech doesn't make you some sort of enemy within, some infestation that "real Americans" must grudgingly tolerate in order to uphold their ideals.
I'll be frank: If you are the sort of person who is stirred by the sight of an American flag waving in the breeze, I will not pit my unthinking patriotism against yours, because I would surely lose. I'm too cynical, too aware of the lessons of history. Does that mean I'm not a "real American"? The chucklehead who shot the Sikh gas station attendant last week did it for his country; did it because he believed himself to be "real American."
I read a line once, I wish I could remember who wrote it: "Think of the nation as the country's day job." The country is the place, the people, the extraordinary absurd exuberance of giant fiberglass animals and palaces made of corn and crazy folk artists in rural Georgia and, yes, twin towers that pierce the sky. The nation is an ever-shifting set of political priorities arising from and imposed on that country--corporate tax breaks, welfare reform, a few missiles lobbed here and there. This seems so obvious, but apparently needs to be reiterated: You can love the country and still find fault with the nation.
What in your opinion is the root cause the terrorist attacks on the
World Trade Center and the Pentagon?
I watched the towers burn from the rooftop of my building in Brooklyn, watched the first one collapse. I've seen the aftermath of earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, I've seen the twisted metal wreckage of the car in which my mother died--but I've never, never seen anything so terrible as that.
As I write this, no honest person can claim to understand with certainty what the hijackers were thinking, because they're in no position to talk, and no one else has stepped up to talk for them. Assigning them motives at this point is to some extent an exercise in hubris.
Having said that...we can look at the conditions, which breed this sort of fanaticism, and one of the common threads is almost always desperation. When people have nothing to live for, they are ripe candidates for a group like the Taliban. And part of the reason people in this region are so abjectly and utterly desperate is that we used them and cast them aside like a dirty tissue as soon as we were done. After the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, so did we--leaving behind a whole lot of guns and bombs and very little else. Perhaps if we had poured in a little humanitarian aid at that point, given people alternatives, given them some hope, none of this would be happening now. I don't know. This isn't one that lends itself to easy answers. I'm actually not one of those people who believe that the world would be a better and more peaceful place if the United States didn't exist--nature abhors a vacuum, and if this country were not the geopolitical 900-pound gorilla, I'm sure another country would take its place. But as Peter Parker the Amazing Spider-Man learned to his everlasting sorrow as the burglar he could have stopped later murdered his uncle--with great power comes great responsibility. The world is a vast interconnected matrix. Borders are a more fragile metaphor than ever. I mean, look at what's happening now--we're at war, but not with a nation-state--with an idea, with a concept. We're at war with terrorism. The point is, we can simply no longer afford to turn our backs on the desperate, and we especially can no longer afford not to clean up after our own messes--because something will come back and bite us in the ass. The Taliban are a Frankenstein monster of our own creation.
But most of the hijackers appear to have lived comfortably middle class lives, so poverty and desperation alone is clearly not the complete explanation. My guess, and forgive me if this is breathtakingly banal, that it's a combination of political anger and religious fanaticism--a really scary combination wherever it springs up, which is why I'm somewhat troubled by all the immediate talk of God and country in the wake of this thing. I just read a really smug op-ed piece in USA Today about how great that response was, how great it was to see God back in public life in America--as if this country has ever been anywhere near as secular as the fundamentalists pretend, as if a politician could *ever* get elected without making it abundantly clear that he or she believes fervently and wholeheartedly in a Supreme Being, preferably of the Christian faith. To me, the lesson of this thing should be that religion and politics are highly volatile compounds, which can react explosively when mixed. But when you add in the hatred born of desperation, and all bets are off. The hijackers themselves may not have been desperately poor, but without those neither conditions, neither bin Laden nor the Taliban could ever have risen to power.
What do you believe the United States should do to prevent future
terrorist attacks? What will This Modern World have to say about the rush
What I have said about the rush to war so far is that there are no easy answers, no clear explanations--see answer above. I've taken a lot of grief from yahoos who just want to bomb somebody, anybody--but even the administration seems to understand that this isn't something we can just solve by lobbing a couple of cruise missiles--that diplomacy is just as important as military action. I hope this apparent level-headedness does not dissipate, because while bin Laden does not represent the entire Muslim world, an indiscriminate bombing campaign could very well rally that world against us--which is probably exactly what bin Laden, or whoever is responsible for these attacks, is hoping for. We could find ourselves well into World War Three by the time this interview sees print if we're not very, very careful. This is the moment in which we define the world we will live in for a very long time to come.
Personally I believe in the bomb them with butter approach. There's a massive humanitarian crisis brewing in Afghanistan, and demonstrating our commitment to helping the people of that beleaguered nation would probably do us a hell of a lot more good in the long term than military action.
I've read that you don't believe you can change the world. Say you
could, say you were omnipotent ruler. What are the first things you would
do if you could rearrange the way humans live and interact on this planet?
The first thing I would do is make the use of a car alarm punishable by a long and mandatory prison sentence. Zero tolerance. This would win me the everlasting loyalty of my subjects, and I could move on to war, famine, disease, and so on. But definitely, I'd have to start with the car alarms.
What social responsibility does the average individual in a wealthy
Western nation have? Why don1t we all just hole up in the suburbs with
our DVDs, SUVs, and high-speed Internet connections?
I think I answered this one above--there are no more borders. There's the old saying about a butterfly flapping its wings halfway around the world causing a hurricane, and never has this been more true than today. We can't afford to turn our back on the world, can't afford to walk away from international treaties like Kyoto and germ warfare and ABM and so on. A kid is starving halfway around the world, and the next thing you know there's a crop duster overhead with a load of anthrax. In this modern world, we all live at ground zero.
What do you think of Noam Chomsky?
Probably the most honest person in the country, therefore--unfortunately--destined to be reviled and ignored.
What are some of your favourite books of all time? What book do you
think I should read that maybe I haven't?
Since you're in Paris, I'd suggest 'The Last Time I Saw Paris,' which is a really beautiful memoir of the Rue de la Huchette (sp?) in the thirties. It's written from a post-war perspective, but this is never directly acknowledged until late in the book--there's just this bittersweet feeling to the whole thing. I've just finished the third book in Tom deHaven's Derby Dugan trilogy, which is a fictional history of the comic strip in twentieth century America, but I'd recommend starting with the first one and reading them in order. Kavalier and Clay would be high on my list, and not just because it's also comics-related.
There's always Raymond Chandler, whose writing exemplifies the blending of high and low art, something I take a certain interest in as a cartoonist. I don't have as much time for fiction as I'd like, so mostly I am grateful when a novel doesn't waste my time. Some genre novelists, like Chandler in his day, and like Martin Cruz Smith or James Lee Burke, are simply a pure joy to read, whereas some writerly novels seem like a complete waste of time to me, nothing more than testaments to the writer's own cleverness. I want to be transported by fiction. I want the language to soar but I also want the story to captivate.
But mostly, I have to spend so much time reading newspapers, magazines, and non-fiction that I have far less time to read for enjoyment than I would like.
The philosophy of our magazine has always been to try and present our
stories with as much truth as possible and in a way that will make both
Kilometer Zero and the story subject as happy as possible. Is there
anything you've ever wanted from a magazine profile about yourself that
you've never received? Is there anything we could do for you that would
make you really really happy?
Prior to a few weeks ago I would have suggested that you fly me over to Paris and throw a fabulous magazine release party, but I think it may be awhile before I get on an airplane again. Barring that, I can't really think of anything.