Catching Up with Tom Kaczynski

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Uncivilized CEO and Publisher Tom Kaczynski.Uncivilized CEO and Publisher Tom Kaczynski.

This interview—or an earlier version of it—has been gestating for over a year. In September 2020, after Diamond Distributors mispriced a six-issue package of Craig Thompson’s comic book Ginseng Roots (Uncivilized Books), I contacted artist and Uncivilized publisher Tom Kaczynski and scheduled a short interview about Diamond’s mistake. Tom and I got to know each other during that chat, even as Diamond’s flub proved inconsequential and our interview irrelevant.

In late summer 2021, Tom suggested that we do a new interview, about both his personal projects and the upcoming Uncivilized publication slate. The freewheeling tone of our dialogue reflects both our rapport from the earlier interview and intellectual affinities we share. We shift from discussing Fantagraphics’ forthcoming tenth anniversary edition of Tom’s Beta-Testing the Apocalypse to Tom and Gabrielle Bell’s Uncivilized Territories podcast to J.G. Ballard to the recent Our Stories Carried Us Here collection of immigrant stories to the design of Matt Madden’s Ex Libris with ease, thanks to Tom’s relentless curiosity and willingness to challenge aesthetic orthodoxies. It was a joy to talk to Tom twice.

 

Craig Fischer: There’ll be three new stories in Beta-Testing the Ongoing Apocalypse. Where did they originally appear?

Tom Kaczynski: There’s a new introduction by science fiction author Christopher Brown and three new stories in the collection, one of which was never published before. One of the additions to Ongoing Apocalypse originally ran in Twin Cities Noir, an anthology published by Akashic Books; mostly, their noir books are prose fiction, but I got to do a comic. The other previously published story is “The 36th Chamber of Commerce,” which ran in World War 3 Illustrated.  “Commerce” also got recently translated into Portuguese and ran in Portugal’s oldest anarchist newspaper! The brand-new story is about an Elon Musk-like character named Nelo Task. Ongoing also includes several pages of notes that explain the stories written by Adalbert Arcane.

Was it unsettling to revisit work you did a decade ago? I ask because you and Gabrielle Bell do a podcast, Uncivilized Territories, and one of your episodes focuses on the lures and dangers of nostalgia. You and Gabrielle talk about the need to separate the art or artifact itself from personal feelings of nostalgia: for Bell, it’s separating a Garbage Pail Kid card from the nostalgia she feels for the time in her life when she loved the Garbage Pail Kids. Did you experience nostalgia when you began to revise Beta-Testing?

Not really. To me, it still feels fresh in some ways. It was late when it came out, and there wasn’t much hoopla around the book, so it feels like a lost artifact to me and maybe other people as well. Reading the new introduction by Christopher Brown gave me a fresh look at Beta-Testing, as did revisiting the stories through the eyes of Adalbert Arcane’s notes. They helped me tease out some of the themes I was thinking about back then and had forgotten entirely. I thought it was a valuable exercise for myself as an artist and writer. It never felt nostalgic in any way. It felt more like a continuation.

The three new stories also put a nice capstone on the stories previously in Beta-Testing. With the new comic I just finished, it was fun to get into that mindset again, but differently. I’ve wanted to create some kind of utopian work that envisions a more positive future for the world, even though I keep falling back into dystopian themes. That’s easy to do, especially these days. [Laughs.] But the new story—which is called “The Utopian Dividend”—tries to find something positive to say, even though most people will read it as very dystopian. But there’s a utopian core to it.

From Kaczynski’s upcoming story “The Utopian Dividend.”

Why is creating a utopia so important to you right now?

Before I emigrated from Communist Poland, America looked like a utopia. The United States was (unintentionally, through television shows) portrayed in a positive light in Polish media—though when you come here, you realize that America is mostly just another country. It’s not some kind of a “city on a hill.” But still: there’s still something here that’s difficult to replicate elsewhere. There’s something underneath all the negativity; there’s still something utopian about the American project.

Is part of that utopianism the ability that people have to remake themselves in America in ways they can’t in other countries?

That’s part of it. If you stay where you grew up for most of your life, you’ll always be rooted there. If you’re from one country, and then you go to another, you have the opportunity to remake yourself and create something new. If I had remained in Poland, I don’t know if I could’ve done comics the same way I’m doing them now. The comics industry nearly disappeared in Poland for twenty years after the fall of Communism.

Poland has exciting comics again, but that was not the case when I began making comics as a kid.

You grew up reading American superhero comics, right?

At first, I read Polish comics. There were a lot of Polish comics available in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but after 1989 that whole industry collapsed for several years. For the most part, it became impossible to do comics in Poland. Then when I moved to Germany—before I moved to America—I discovered American superhero comics.

I read one weird artifact when I was a kid in a Polish / English library. It was a comic starring the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, so maybe it was a reprint of some Jack Kirby annual. I don’t know. I just have this vague memory of it…

It’s nostalgia! Don’t look back! [Laughter.]

I think nostalgia is a danger, but you can recover something interesting if you approach it with a clear head. On the podcast, I talked about Chris Ware and Seth using their nostalgia to create something new. Their projects aren’t entirely nostalgic; they synthesize something old with something new. Human history goes back thousands of years, and so many paths not taken, I think it’s occasionally worth exploring those paths, as long as you don’t just wallow in nostalgia.

Let me ask a few more questions about the revised Beta-Testing. In re-reading the original version of the book, I noticed that your drawing style owed a lot to Dan Clowes. Is that a fair assessment?

For sure Dan Clowes is a significant influence on me. I was reading all the independent comics of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

Also, I think that your philosophical concerns have changed since the first Beta-Testing. There are strong influences on the original book—in your critique of car culture, and in your interest in psychography, I see both Jean-Luc Godard and J.G. Ballard. Now, in 2021, you seem less influenced by those artists and much more interested in aesthetics. “Adelbert Arcane” talks instead about how comics might work in new formalist ways. Your concerns have changed in ten years—which is good, because you want to mature and try on different ideas and art-making approaches. [Laughter.] But was it strange to return to those ideas and preoccupations when revising the book?

That’s a big question! [Laughter.] I see continuity between those ideas and what I’m thinking about now. For me, Ballard’s fiction, however critical it may be of certain aspects of culture—cars, suburbia, whatever—always involves excavating a primitive core underneath the civilized façade. And I’m not sure that’s the right way to read Godard: he’s very political, but in Weekend, there’s a constant push-and-pull between Modernity, embodied in traffic jams and automobile accidents, and the results of Modernity, people surviving the crashes to move back into the wilderness. That’s Ballardian too. It’s the primordial humanity that re-emerges once you strip away the trappings of civilization.

My new stuff involves thinking about comics as a medium for philosophy. I don’t know if I’ve created comics that have achieved that goal, but I’m working towards that. Comics-making overlaps with the mental baggage we have as humans—both explore how we interact with the world, conceptualize ideas, orient ourselves in space, and think about space as a metaphor and a trigger for our memories.

The ancient Greek technique of the “memory palace” is something we are; we as humans are memory palaces, whether we use the method consciously to memorize Homer or subconsciously aggregate ourselves into a person through our memories. And comics approximate a memory palace on the page: the panels and pages operate in space and time coordinates, and images can anchor more abstract, more ephemeral words.

In terms of using comics for philosophy, philosophers use visual metaphors in their language, and comics can make those metaphors more explicit and concrete. I wonder if there’s a way to push comics in that direction; not all comics, but some. There’s a place for superhero comics, there’s a place for YA fantasy, but I’m trying to make room for philosophy in the medium, though I’m not sure where I’ll end up with all this…

Are there precursors who have tried, intuitively or consciously, to push comics into more of a philosophical direction? Or tried to achieve a blend between comics and philosophy?

Scott McCloud is maybe the most explicit example here…

Kevin Huizenga?

Kevin, absolutely. I think Cerebus was doing that on some level. [Laughter.] I’m re-reading Cerebus right now, but I don’t have a handle on it yet—it’s a mish-mash in my head right now. Alan Moore, too, and much of it within the constraints of the superhero genre. Chris Ware, Dan Clowes…although Clowes has a self-hating relationship to philosophy. [Laughs.] When he philosophizes, he undermines it at the same time.

When Clowes did those multiple-story issues of Eightball, he always juxtaposed philosophizing or ambitious artistic intent with strips like “Shamrock Squid,” [Laughs], which deflates what Clowes saw as his own pomposity.

Exactly. And that was the fun of Eightball, right? His Modern Cartoonist pamphlet uses such heightened language while showing you a picture of a cartoonist slitting his wrist. [Laughter.] You know Clowes believes what he’s writing one hundred percent, but he’s afraid to sound too didactic or committed.

It’s interesting that you mentioned Alan Moore, because your discussions of language with Gabrielle on the Uncivilized Territories podcast struck me as similar to some of Moore’s theories in his comics, superhero and otherwise. Both Alan Moore—and Grant Morrison—believe that language is a code that underwrites, and almost determines, the ways we act and think.

Both of those writers use magic as a metaphor for being a writer. Or they just literally claim to be magicians. [Laughter.] I’ve been influenced by their thinking about this stuff. Moore’s idea of Immateria—the Archipelago of Platonic ideas—is a memory palace itself, a city of archetypes. I’m very interested in those ideas, and in my comics—maybe not the ones in Beta-Testing specifically, but in Trans Terra and Trans-Alaska—I play with the notion of ideas being places that you can visit and explore. I owe an enormous debt to both Moore and Morrison; I read them a lot in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and I revisit their work now and then.

A map from TRANS TERRA depicting ideas as locations.

And this is a breakdown in those genre distinctions you were making. You said “There’s a place for superhero comics,” yet you derive some ideas and inspiration from superhero comics, as well as all the other voluminous reading you do that you discuss in the podcast! [Laughter.] The book behind the theory of language we’ve been talking about is…

… S.S.O.T.B.M.E. by Ramsey Dukes. Moore and Morrison were fortunate to be writing when they did: superhero comics were in flux, the whole world of comics was unstable, a point I’ve brought up in the column I write for The Comics Journal. There was an openness, an opportunity to throw new ideas into the superhero milieu. That’s not happening anymore.

As you said on the podcast, the superhero comics these days are afterthoughts to the appearances of superheroes in other media.

They’re the merchandise for the movies. At least Zack Snyder’s film version of Watchmen (2009) was faithful to the comic. Many Marvel movies take ideas from older comics but without similar reverence. The new comics feel like they’re regurgitating what the movies do.

I’ve given up on the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” which was only driven in the first place by my dangerously nostalgic attachment to those characters and stories. But it seems like “Phase 4” of the MCU is going to be a rewrite of Alan Moore’s Supreme.

I don’t have Disney+, so I haven’t watched any of those shows.

That’s fine. Don’t rush. [Laughter.]

No comment. I don’t know what’s going on anymore! I haven’t thought too much about the Marvel movies that I’ve seen, but I’ve watched them because it’s fun and because I wondered, “What are they going to do with Thanos?” Thanos was an important character when I was a kid.

We’ve been talking around Uncivilized Territories: you and Gabrielle started the podcast in March. Why did you decide to start a podcast?

People during 2020 were starving for companionship, for hanging out and chatting with friends. Both Gabrielle and I were listening to several comics podcasts. But, I felt like they fall into two categories: they either talk nostalgically about older comics (Cartoon Kayfabe does a great job with that), or they feature some interviews with contemporary cartoonists with new books coming out. There was very little idea-talking. Maybe Gabrielle and I have talked too much about ideas and not enough about comics.

But you two did a whole episode on your favorite comics cons and festivals, so… [Laughter.]

We felt like we needed to say something about comics! We hope to infect the comics world with ideas that come from outside comics. There just aren’t many venues where people talk about ideas. Most reviews don’t go there, and there’s no media ecosphere of comics and ideas. Maybe some theorizing is going on in academia, and the old Comics Journal was talking about ideas when they published weird postmodernist writers like Kenneth Smith. [Laughs.] Whatever you thought of that writing, it elevated the discussion of comics to address big ideas. And Uncivilized Territories is another opportunity to do that.

The conversations with Gabrielle will continue every month, but I’ll also be doing interviews with other writers and artists.

A two-page spread from Craig Thompson’s GINSENG ROOTS #6.

Can you give us a preview of who you’ll be inviting to the show?

We’ll be talking to Craig Thompson. I want to speak to him about Christianity and other religions and how religion informs his comics. I also plan to talk to Matt Madden, whose book Ex Libris will be published by Uncivilized in the fall. Our discussion will probably go deep into formal comics experimentation and metafiction in general. We’ll want to talk about Italo Calvino and other metaphysical writers and what’s interesting in that prose work to cartoonists.

There’re a few others I want to interview, including Greg Hunter, who wrote a book about Dash Shaw for Uncivilized’s “Critical Cartoons” series. Greg and I will do a deep-dive episode like the one Gabrielle and I did about Olivier Schrauwen’s comics—so first, we’ll talk about Dash without Dash being present. [Laughs.] And then later, Dash could join the discussion and respond to what we said about his work and add to the conversation.

It’s interesting that you bring up the notion of comics discourse that focuses more on ideas, rather than issues of craft or personal interviews with creators. It’s what you’re trying to do with Uncivilized’s “Critical Cartoons” series (the books on Barks, Brown, Doucet, and now Dash Shaw): transmitting ideas about comics in ways that aren’t too academic but still rigorous. Is that the purpose of both the “Critical Cartoons” books and the podcast?

Absolutely. I don’t want to get too academic with these projects. Academia has its place, but academics often speak only to other academics, and those conversations are difficult to translate into the larger public discourse. Valuable work, but it’s hard to get the public excited about it.

I think we undervalue big ideas as something the public might be interested in; I’m interested in popularizing science. Every discipline should have someone like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who popularizes complex concepts for the general public. And usually, the public is excited to learn that there are weird, new theories about dark matter or string theory…

Comics can do the same. There are ways to talk about comics that are not too esoteric and tell people about the potential of comics to express ideas. But all this is in an embryonic state.

But is it? Greg Hunter, the writer of the upcoming Dash Shaw book, has written for The Comics Journal, and so have you. Do you think the Journal charts that middle ground between knee-jerk celebrations of comics and the theoretical rigor of academics?

They’re still the best publication for that. However…

There’s no Kenneth Smith around these days… [Laughter.]

It’s less even about that. The difficulty for The Comics Journal, at least over the last few years, has been less about the quality of the writing and more about the design of the TCJ website itself. Before the recent remodel, it was difficult for editors to foreground content and readers to read it on their phones. In the past, you could get the old physical Journal at any comic shop, and it enraged you, or you liked it. [Laughs] The old TCJ site was not very accessible.

I’ve written some really long pieces for the online Journal, and one complaint I hear from people is, “Oh, I saw your essay, but it ran longer than a thousand words, so I didn’t read it.” Do you think there’s something implicit on the Internet that prevents people from devoting full attention to online writing?

People still want to read quality long essays, but the process needs to be easier for them. The Internet favors short pieces, but a sub-audience seeks to read online and in depth, and the medium should facilitate them. And if you can build a site that leverages in-depth writing well, you’ll cultivate an audience. People still read long articles on politics in The New Yorker, but The New Yorker has an up-to-date design that makes the text easy to read. Maybe the Substack model could work, where you get a complete essay in your e-mail. The Comics Journal needs to catch up to these new models.

Even the print Journal has always been aspirational, since they’re always struggling with limited resources.

Of course! I don’t deny that there are limited resources.

You’re a publisher! You know about limited resources! [Laughter.]

But the best reviews of comics are still mainly in the Journal. You rarely see something as good as just a mediocre Journal review anywhere else.

For me, the Journal’s only competitor is SOLRAD.

Though SOLRAD is even smaller—yes, they’re the only other game in town. Occasionally, you’ll read a great review in The New York Review of Books or the L.A. Review of Books. But they typically review only the high-profile projects that everybody’s reviewing anyway.

There’s not much of an ecosystem for serious discussion about comics. The Uncivilized Territories podcast is my small contribution to the cause…besides the books I publish! [Laughs.]

To a vibrant, idea-driven comics discourse!

Yeah, yeah. [Laughs.]

I want to go back to your idea about this middle space between mass cult and academia. Do you try to teach from that in-between spot? In spring 2021, you taught at the University of Minnesota, is that right?

Yeah, and I also teach at MCAD [Minnesota College of Art and Design] in the fall. Those classes are hands-on; the UM course is part of the Printmaking department, so the focus is on making zines and comics. Theory and ideas are only a tiny part of that class. My MCAD class is mostly about publishing, about the nuts and bolts of the current comics market. I update that every year based on whatever events have happened in the distribution and sales of comics.

We’ll..

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