You may not associate springtime with comic books, which are still trying to shed a reputation for an audience made entirely of pasty-faced teens hunched over ultra-violent spandex action in their parents’ basement. But this spring, Gotham’s abuzz with the graphic arts. In April, the annual New York Comics Convention displayed as diverse a spectrum of artistry as the Armory Show uptown while telling as many strange and wonderful tales as the Tribeca Film Festival. In April 2008, the ComicCon was still more or less a showcase for mainstream superheroics, but even there you could see hints of diversity. Manga, underground comics, and indie work weren’t easy to find, but they had more room than ever before. As the days grow longer, the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art will celebrate this diversity when it re-opens in Midtown Manhattan. The MoCCA holds its annual Art Festival at the Puck Building the first weekend of June.
To get some perspective on all this activity, I spoke to Glenn Head, a Brooklyn comix artist and editor of HOTWIRE. In 2007, the first issue of this comix anthology drew attention and accolades, eventually getting nominated for both the Eisner and Harvey Award for “Best Anthology.” The second issue of HOTWIRE was published by Fantagraphics this spring.
Aaron Leichter (The Brooklyn Rail): Now that comics and graphic novels have entered the mainstream, what’s the role of underground comics?
Glenn Head: The role of underground comics is to subvert. They take what’s safe, complacent and normative in life (and comics) and show the dirt that’s under our fingernails. This was done in early MAD comics, and it’s still done now. This could be autobiographical, socio-political, sexual, or what have you. But its role is to push the envelope. Underground comics are not supposed to make you feel comfortable.
Rail: Where do you see independent comics going in the next five years or so?
Head: Comics are in a place right now where people are scratching their heads and saying “This comics stuff—I guess it’s art… but it’s crazy! Can someone explain it to me?” So recently there have been a lot of tomes that deconstruct what’s gone on in comic book history: what it all means, how it relates to the bigger picture of American culture. I think people see comics right now the way they saw jazz music in the ’50s. And there are a bunch of comic book Nat Hentoff’s out there, explaining it all.
Rail: In your anthology, HOTWIRE, it seems like a lot of the artists are from Brooklyn. Is there something that ties them together (other than geography)? Is there an underground comics “scene” that this anthology sort of represents—in Brooklyn or New York in general?
Head: Some of the HOTWIRE artists are from Brooklyn (like myself), though a lot of them are from all over the place, including Argentina, Scotland, Berlin… If there is a kind of New York vibe to HOTWIRE that’s cool by me. Hey, remember when New York meant grittiness?
Seriously, thanks to the Internet there are no local comics “scenes” anymore. There were once, where comics had a particular flavor of say, San Francisco or New York (Barcelona even had its very own particular underground scene in the ’80s and ’90s). These days comics really seem to come from everywhere. We’re drowning in ‘em!
Rail: One of the things I like about HOTWIRE is the wide range of styles and genres that the book has. How would you describe your taste in comics and graphic art? Whose work are you passionate about? What are your influences?
Head: I’m most interested in work that has some kind of personal vision… something disturbing, something “off.” That’s going to interest me. Good drawing is fine, but “for-its-own-sake” doesn’t mean much to me. There have been various times in comic book history where “hacks” needed to meet a deadline, and this made for great, off-the-wall cartooning—as if the artist’s unconscious mind took over or something. I’m passionate about great cartoonists who probably never thought about “art.” Cartoonists like Chester Gould (“Dick Tracy”), Basil Wolverton (“Powerhouse Pepper”), and Boody Rogers. Normal-looking guys from the “old school” of comic-booking (1940s-’50s) whose work was wildly imaginative and crazy. I’m also influenced by Zap Comix—what I think of as the blow-torch approach to cartooning, where the art bordered on the assaultive. I don’t know, am I a masochist? I like comics to hurt!
Rail: What’s your approach to putting HOTWIRE together? How do you edit a collection like this? What sort of tone do you want to set?
Head: My approach to editing HOTWIRE is simply to put together the most exciting, visually powerful comics anthology I can. When I pick up a copy of HOTWIRE, I want to feel the electricity of highly-charged idiosyncratic styles flowing through my fingers. I’m looking for a roller-coaster joy-ride in comics, and if there’s no feeling of safety, so much the better.