Over the past year, Art in America has published several articles that examine comics as both a popular medium and a site of artistic experimentation. Alexi Worth explored Jack Kirby’s eccentric and visionary superhero art in our January issue, and Dan Nadel wrote about the New England zine team Paper Radio—a precursor to Paper Rodeo and Paper Rad—in our May issue. At the 2016 Frieze Art Fair in New York, Nadel and Worth joined A.i.A. editor Julia Wolkoff in a conversation about the intriguing complexity of comics, a format where virtuosic draftsmanship can be fostered under deadline pressure, and expressions of personal identity and political belief can meld with longstanding generic conventions.
JULIA WOLKOFF How do you see the role of the artist in comics? There’s a wide spectrum when it comes to authorship. There are the autobiographical graphic novels by Art Spiegelman and Alison Bechdel, for example, which foreground the personal, authorial voice. Then you have a figure like Kirby who honed a unique style while working under the umbrella of Marvel, a huge publishing house. Paper Radio, as Dan says in his essay, often left the zines and other materials they created completely unsigned.
DAN NADEL Authorship is often assigned and celebrated retroactively in comics; we recognize Kirby now as an author in a way that he wasn’t seen as such at the time. The longest tradition may be of anonymity, running from the early newspaper strips like Krazy Kat, which were signed, of course, but they weren’t really artist-centric. Those strips were character-based and the artist was sort of invisible.
With Paper Radio there was an attempt, in keeping with underground culture at the time, to erase identity deliberately. It resulted in work that was much freer and less fraught than that of their contemporaries. The artists behind Paper Radio embraced a heterogeneous set of influences—they didn’t feel like they were being held to a standard, either by history, or by their peers, or by an audience. Anonymity was freeing for them.
ALEXI WORTH The earlier comics artists were, for the most part, pencil serfs. Kirby began as an inbetweener for film, and much of the work he produced early on wasn’t credited at all. But there was something productive and interesting about the lack of art expectations. Kirby was reflexively creative. And his creativity was, somehow, enabled by the ruinous deadlines and enormous production demands of the industry. At one point he was pretty much drawing all of Marvel himself—one guy. Instead of making him more of a hack, it made him more of an artist.
After the 1960s, there was a broad trend toward more artfulness and more authorship in comics, but there was also a movement back, as Dan was saying, with artists embracing anonymity and working in a way that revisited some aspects of the old workshop production model.
NADEL The old workshop model—the conditions that produced Kirby in the late 1930s early ’40s—was extraordinary. Publishers would basically take a bunch of kids from the Lower East Side, from Brooklyn, from the Bronx, and put them in a room and tell them that they’ve got to sell a million comics next month. And they were really kids, eighteen to twenty-four—you’d be an old man at twenty-four. And there was no model on which to base their production except a shitty Superman comic that might be around. There were millions of pages published under that system. Not all of it was amazing, obviously, but certain combinations of artists came together in interesting ways, and certain people, like Kirby, had minds that got further cracked and opened up by the relentless production schedule. They were just pushed and pushed and pushed until things started sparking out.
WOLKOFF How do you see the role of the reader in comics?
WORTH I’m tempted to back up a little bit to ask Dan to tell the story of Paper Radio. His essay is great because it begins by making big claims for this duo. Sometimes people treat comics as a niche, a little specialized area of interest where everything is under a rubric of geek sideline passions. Dan’s able to suggest in this piece how work like theirs has real urgency, an urgency that can reverberate in the broader culture.
NADEL The claim that I make is that these two artists, Benjamin Jones and Christopher Forgues, who goes by CF, are the two most important cartoonists of their generation. I’ll stick by that. These are two artists who met at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in the late 1990s. Ben was extremely influenced by early digital culture. Christopher was obsessed with radios. He made his own ham radios and performed radio programs—in one case broadcasting just bleeps in a three-block radius. Both were very well trained in art school: Christopher is as much into Joseph Beuys as he is into Jack Kirby, and Ben is very influenced by Nam June Paik, among others.
So they met and they both fell under the spell of a larger scene in Providence, which included genius artists like Brian Chippendale, Matt Brinkman, the group Forcefield, Marie Lorenz, Takeshi Murata, Joe Bradley. It was an unbelievable nexus of talent in one place at one time. I liken it to maybe San Francisco in the ’60s in terms of art, music, and design all coming together. Ben and Christopher were blown away by the anonymity of these artists and decided to make their own work. They used pencils to draw their zines because that was what was easiest and there was no need to use ink because they were photocopying everything—ink was an antiquated production method.
WORTH Tell them about the hacked photocopiers.
NADEL The great Providence and Boston thing was to figure out a way to hack photocopiers. So you would make a card that would give you infinite copies. Ben and Christopher would make huge stacks of photocopies and then give away the zines for free. They called their duo Paper Radio, and they worked together for three years, producing hundreds and hundreds of pages, and zines of all shapes and sizes. One famous story: they sent Gary Panter, who was their artist spirit-god, one of their early zines that was baked in chocolate. Gary thought it was LSD and immediately threw it away. It’s one of the only copies of that work they made.
WOLKOFF Their distribution method was really interesting. They sent out their anonymous comics for free in order to create a community that was invested in their work. When we published Alexi’s Kirby article, the response was incredible. The piece sparked a lot of debate. Clearly, the community around Kirby’s work is highly energized and impassioned. Why do you think that comics have engendered such an intense, active following? Is there a comparison to be made here between the art world and fandom?
WORTH Some of that energy exists because there’s just a lot of great work, and some of it exists because people are nostalgic for their childhoods. There’s great comics fandom and there’s blinkered comics fandom, and sometimes they’re inextricable. Kirby is an especially pivotal person for generations of readers, but many of them have drawn a defensive line around him—and you just can’t cross it. So much of online Kirbyana is adulation, or trivia, or squabbling about who’s your favorite inker. Don’t get me wrong, I like that stuff too. It’s fun, It’s like oenophiles talking about terroir. But it doesn’t always get us closer to understanding what made Kirby so strange and so great.
NADEL Alexi really stirred up the hornet’s nest. There are a few reasons for the impassioned response. The history of comics was basically saved in the 1960s, and by saved I mean fans collected comic books, they collected newspapers: they held onto stuff that was being thrown out. They interviewed these artists before they died or retired or just stopped talking. So there’s a certain feeling of ownership: “We did the work, you stay away.” Kirby is also a special case. This is someone who generated literally hundreds of billions of dollars in profits for massive corporations like Disney. He reaped none of those benefits. His family got some sort of settlement recently, but he worked himself to death. There’s a lot of resentment about that, and then there’s resentment against the art world. I don’t like the term “art world” because there are so many of them. But, believe it or not, people are still really pissed off about Roy Lichtenstein. Angry. Like very notable cartoonists will erupt at his name.
WOLKOFF Many people nit-picked Alexi’s article and corrected our citations, but in general there was a real appreciation and, to some extent, an expression that “finally” his work was being considered in a fine-art context.
NADEL It’s equally funny to me that people would be looking for acceptance from a higher level in the cultural hierarchy. I’m suspicious of that as well. But Kirby’s work is important visually and important to so many of the artists we love. It would be nice if comics could have the infrastructure to support scholarship on this work.
WOLKOFF What comics are you reading now?
WORTH Lately I’ve been rereading OMAC, a Kirby comic from the mid-seventies.
NADEL OMAC’s a fucking great comic. The best thing in the world right now is Tim Hensley’s Sir Alfred no. 3, which is distributed by Fantagraphics and is an oversized retelling of various parts of Alfred Hitchcock’s life through the language of the shittiest possible 1950s generic children’s comics and comic strips. So it’s multiple styles and is incredibly funny and incredibly well researched. Oh, and Christopher Forgues has a new comic out now printed on thermal receipt paper, so check that out.
AUDIENCE I had a question for Alexi. I wonder how or whether Kirby’s work has been productive for you as a painter?
WORTH I grew up with Kirby, so he was always in the deep back part of my drawing head. In the last few years he’s been surfacing more. So yes, I wrote the piece in part for private processing reasons. If you’re thinking about drawing, especially drawing the human figure, one of the fantastic things about Kirby is that he taught himself everything, including anatomy. And Kirby’s anatomy doesn’t exist. That’s one of the great beauties of his work. You’d think for anyone drawing superhero comics knowing male musculature would be an obligatory first step, right? He never learned it. Or rather he side-stepped it, and created an alternative way that muscles work on the frame of your skeleton. It’s fantastic. It’s not just an idiosyncrasy, it’s reinvention.