John Linton Roberson, whom I know from his contributions to Martian Lit, has a new 100-page anthology out, entitled This Sickness #8. He has long been on the forefront of self-publishing using new technologies, has dealt with censorship, and has dared to address the erotic in interesting ways. This career-spanning interview is in two parts.
DARIUS: Let’s talk a little about your career. You went to DePaul University (my brother briefly went there too!) and then worked as a playwright before becoming a cartoonist in 1997. You’ve been making comics for almost 20 years now. What brought you into comics?
ROBERSON: Almost 20 years; sweet Jesus Christ.
I’d originally wanted to do it. I’d always drawn when I was younger. It was the one thing I did my dad encouraged; he’d wanted to do that himself and I’d seen a lot of his drawings in his old textbooks in the attic. When I started high school, getting into theatre and debate around the same time, I got a drawing board from my by then rather estranged dad for Christmas and an airbrush. I won a convention art competition with an airbrush painting I did of Elric. I pored over all these books I found in the Wando school library about how to outfit your studio and draw, like Richardson or Buscema’s books, and got obsessed with Wrightson’s Frankenstein book, which I’d won because of that competition. Still have it. I wrote Stephen King this stupid letter about how I’d like to illustrate something of his and he sent back a confused and kind letter saying he had no idea who I was or what my work looked like. And I was 14, after all. And couldn’t draw for crap.
Around that time, I was a fan of things from Pacific, First, and Kitchen Sink, like Wrightson’s MASTER OF THE MACABRE Warren reprints, or P. Craig Russell’s ELRIC and NIGHT MUSIC, or AMERICAN FLAGG!, or Pasko’s E-MAN, or TWISTED TALES, or the lush color SPIRIT reprints, or Milligan & McCarthy on STRANGE DAYS. (I was Milligan’s fan long before I was Moore’s.) I had just thrown off a lot of superhero stuff, because I’d started reading the Comics Journal (because they had Elric on the cover). Marvel stuff was mostly reprints of the old Adams stuff, but I’d grown up on Colan in HOWARD THE DUCK and TOMB OF DRACULA, and Kurtzman & Elder in general in old reprints I found in paperbacks, but then GOODMAN BEAVER–I bought a lot from Bud Plant mail order.
Also had gotten for Christmas the Cochran SHOCK SUSPENSTORIES set. I often got introduced to stuff at Christmas. Pink Floyd one time, for instance, an array of their albums laid out by my mom in a configuration you hated to ruin, it was such lovely display. I always preferred SHOCK to the horror, because it was the same look and storytelling but applied to more ambiguous and often real subject matter. And ELFQUEST–though I thought it was silly after a while–which I discovered in this little store in a mall called THE GREEN DRAGON. Malls where I lived were these oases of stuff from outside the South, ironically imparters of culture. Rock, indie comics, stuff the South didn’t encourage much otherwise. I think I originally went to the store because I was into Dungeons & Dragons briefly, but found myself mainly interested in learning the monsters & gods in the manuals and painting the little lead figures. Something of a dicey store–they sold weapons. Sais for instance, which I’d just seen in Miller’s DAREDEVIL and really wanted but my mom wouldn’t let me buy, wisely. They had a whole massive rack of every issue of CEREBUS. The covers grabbed me. I got the “Election Night” issue of CEREBUS and was hooked and really, both that book and Sim’s personality (this was long before the misogyny charge, when in fact he had a massive female audience because of the book’s fantasy connections) hit me the hardest of all. I read them because they were not just indie and creator-owned but self-published. I had been reading about what Kirby and Siegel and Shuster and so many others had gone through, and it had an effect on me: I didn’t want to buy comics that weren’t creator-owned, if possible. I looked for copyright notices when I bought a comic.
Exceptions were anything by Alan Moore or Frank Miller. I was rather obsessed with SWAMP THING but I had been since I was little: I shoplifted an issue each of SWAMP THING #1 & 2 from a used bookstore when I was 11, I have to confess. I actually shoplifted a lot of old comics then simply by putting them in a bag, I suppose I looked innocent. That was how I started with Wrightson after having seen the Dollar comic reprint of the Ravenwind Witch issue. This was on a thread with that as far as “Art I Like”. I loved Bissette & Totleben and I became obsessed with John’s linework, Sim’s too. Still can’t stop trying to approximate it. And Bissette’s dynamic, shrieking layouts have been useful inspirations for many of my own. Not that they’re as good, any of my stuff. No one’s comics surge at you like Steve’s.
The following convention, Michael Bair–then Hernandez, who had been the artist of another favorite, AZTEC ACE–was the guest and I pestered the poor guy all day because he was the first pro I’d ever met, and he eventually drew a sketch of CG Marakova (who I had a thing for) from FLAGG! in which he left in all the proportion underdrawing to get me started learning how figure proportions worked. It was in exchange for an Overstreet Price Guide. I think it was the one with Captain Marvel smashing through a wall on the cover.
And then I did a portrait of a girl I liked for her birthday. She thought that was weird, and just like that I gave up completely for theatre, and went to the Theatre School at DePaul to become an actor, then got sick of that after having more interesting classes outside of the Theatre School like Soviet & Japanese Film under the late Richard DeCordova–who at the time I didn’t realize was a major film scholar–and Theory of Tragedy & Comedy under Stephen Houlgate from Cambridge, from whom most of my love of tragedy and ideas about comedy, like Bergson’s inflexibility theory, come from. My acting teacher, who was huge on improv, accused me of “playwriting” all the time, meaning I was thinking too far ahead and taking over the scene. I couldn’t help it, it’s how my head works.
DARIUS: I’m fascinated by the theory of laughter, but I don’t know Bergson’s inflexibility theory.
ROBERSON: John Cleese is very, very big on this–apparently it’s a Cambridge thing–so think of a John Cleese-style British businessman, all stiff and proper walking down the street stiffly and properly, holding himself in perfect control at all times, and then he slips on a banana peel and twitches and flails wildly and awkwardly till he lands on his ass. His inflexibility leaves him vulnerable to the unexpected. It begs to be disproven. Or further, the idea of not only codifying silly walks but even having a ministry of them. If we’ll have awkwardness, it will be awkwardness with rules! The theory has to do with the idea that laughter is a social sanction against inflexibility, discouraging it. It’s a very versatile theory because there are many kinds of inflexibility–physical, psychological, and so forth. BRAZIL revolves around a society too inflexible to admit it’s falling apart and so acts as though things never working is normal, and that collapses in infrastructure (all the explosions of ducts in walls everywhere; those aren’t bombs) are the work of terrorists. The humor comes from the contradiction between the situation and their behavior. Another easy example might be in THE MEANING OF LIFE when Cleese is giving the sex education lecture, demonstrating on his wife in front of bored schoolboys. Egotism is inflexibility; think of Alan Partridge, believing he’s a great star in a world that is continually unimpressed by him. He cannot be wrong, therefore THEY are all wrong. Classism, racism, all of these are inflexibilities.
Anyway, I decided to just be a writer–I’d already written one play in high school. I missed most of my final exams to write a play someone wanted, in six days with Monty Python’s THE FINAL RIPOFF playing over and over, that I told them I already had on hand and just needed some tweaks. That was SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF. I got thrown out of DePaul–it being a conservatory, it took very little once your 2nd year review came up; Daryl Hannah and Linda Hunt also got cut at year 2, and they didn’t actually blow off classes–and then had a fight with the director over which the play was cancelled anyway. And it wasn’t like there would have been much money anyway.
DARIUS: So you got kicked out for skipping those finals? How could you skip your finals?
ROBERSON: To be honest, I really don’t remember. I’d kind of lost interest in school by that point. It wasn’t just finals, it was that they decided I wasn’t the kind of material they needed, which you knew would happen at year 2 going in; they famously cut ¾ of their class at that point. They try to produce a specific type of acting professional–your final exam at year 4 is literally an audition in front of producers. I wasn’t their type, even if I had been acting toward the end like I gave a shit. So it was both those things. I’d probably do it differently now.
Living in an off-campus apartment did terrible things to my motivation. School had become more about people I had met and befriended than about classes, and Chicago seemed like it had opportunities that school was delaying me from. I had no idea what I was doing and was allowed to run loose this way with no guidance and money I’d inherited because of my dad’s death, all of which went to tuition. I was never as smart as I thought I was. The rest of my 7 years in Chicago I spent living in a communal situation with my friends most of the time, and we did a lot of pot and LSD, watched a lot of movies, and explored our various obsessions. I was writing plays I would never get put on and telemarketing for a theatre called Wisdom Bridge and later another called Northlight. Emily was drawing. Another was plotting revolution. Another was there because he was dating Emily. Another was there because she was dating me, and my best friend was living there too, a very Hopey-looking Brazilian lesbian (probably the biggest influence ever in my life, and I need to write about her one day) I had a slightly…ambiguous relationship with, as did my girlfriend, and that was all a whole soap opera of its own. There was even a professional drag queen, whose act was based on Annie Lennox in the “I Need A Man” video. I didn’t know him well and we didn’t get along–I think he was a friend of Emily’s. I was probably the most pretentious and difficult person in that house, and that’s saying something.
This was all about 1991-94. Our landlord was a minister. Ages later when they told us we were evicted because duh, that night there was a lightning storm which knocked down a tree in front which smashed the sun room of our apartment. I got to call the minister’s wife and let her know her boss was mad at her. “Shit,” she said. That was fun. Kittens were being born in another room while that was going on. All very dramatic. I actually tried the Withnail “I have a heart condition” thing when they were announcing the eviction in our living room. Didn’t work.
The next time I had a play actually put on was after I was already a cartoonist, in 2004. I kept writing them but made no effort to get them made because I hated working in theatre at this point, and didn’t like that it was something seen by so few even if it were successful. And they started having way too much in them, stuff you could never stage, too elaborate.
So I tried being a novelist but would write way too much to want to edit down later and get lost in it. Lots of ideas but no medium to settle on. I even wrote songs and played them, and they weren’t bad. But basically, typical GenX 20s.
Sometime around 1997, once I was living in CA, I came across Dave Sim’s GUIDE TO SELF-PUBLISHING and its hectoring Coach Voice got to me: decided to try to draw one of my plays. The first idea was FALLING SKY, but that was an elaborate thing I wasn’t ready for, so I used VITRIOL instead. I did go back to FALLING SKY later for a bit in 2005 and that’s posted on my blog as “unfinished work”, but probably won’t ever continue it–I’m kind of out of touch emotionally with a lot of what I wrote for theatre now. Though that’s a shame; at the time I wrote it (1993 I think), FALLING SKY was a very elaborate project I had a lot of notebooks for. But I have many projects people probably will never see. And as I can’t devote full time to it, will never be able to pursue. I have to choose what I do carefully. Right now I’m doing three different long arcs concurrently and hope to finish them. Jan Strnad wrote once about the “air going out of the tire” psychological detachment one risks when a work takes too long to complete and I fear that.
DARIUS: Do you want to talk more about Falling Sky or Vitriol? Introduce them for readers?
ROBERSON: Some I can. I don’t know if I want to say too terribly much detail about Falling Sky, in case I ever decide to return to it. I suppose nowadays we’d call it steampunk(more dieselpunk actually) or goth in a lot of ways. It had to do with an isolated mining town inside a deep crater ruled by a horrible wealthy family, like if you crossed Gorey with BLACK KISS. A couple of minor things about them I guess I can mention–there’s a daughter who refuses to believe her husband is dead–which he has been, for three years–and rolls his embalmed corpse about all the time tied to a dolly pretending nothing is unusual. When she brags about their wonderful sex life her brother remarks, “I suppose rigor mortis has its uses.” Said brother is actually the son of God, but had his birthright as messiah revoked because his mother had lied about being a virgin. As their main business is funeral services–one reason they work the miners to death, they make more off that than the mining–this poses problems when he touches dead people. The play was finished around 1994.
VITRIOL was 1992, and had my character Rick Krassner from my one produced play SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF in a non-metafictional story. I had this notion of a trilogy then called the Krassner Papers. The final part was to be a parody of Oedipus at Colonus. SoD revolves around him slowly finding out he’s a character in a play, but as even that revelation is scripted it’s not anything he can actually rebel against. In both works he’s a failed playwright, and more or less the most negative and insecure parts of myself; I drew him to look like me. But none of what happens in it is autobiographical, except a few incidents here and there because they were funny. He’s in this terrible relationship with a horrible woman named Lilith Lamprey, who I would now say is a little misogynist perhaps. I was young and angrier.
She was based on a couple of ex-girlfriends I was particularly bitter about. At the time I wrote it, some years before, the girl I was living with (the soap opera mentioned earlier) thought I was talking about her and broke up with me. Unfortunate. Especially as there’s another character, Sally, who WAS based on her and was much more fun. Basically, for no apparent reason Sally gets obsessed with Rick and, much to his horror when he finds out, kills people who do shit to him to get closer to him. In one case provoking someone to do shit to him so she’ll have a rationale to kill the guy. This ends up with them having to go on the run into hillbilly country. It’s kind of a crazy work and looking at it now I can’t believe it took me 6 years to draw it, but it was a good way to, as Sim advises, “get the bad pages out.” I was so fast then–one evening pencils, the next inks, and done. Now a page takes me a week start to finish, though pencils usually take just a couple of hours. I guess I could set it up for print and issue it but it’s like 252 pages and I just don’t feel like looking at those pages again, especially the first 5 chapters when I was just trying to find a style and remember how to draw. I’d want to redraw it, certainly re-letter it, or add greys or other things and good god no. It’s all posted online and has been a while; even those webpages are all just as they were ten years ago.
But at the time it was my main obsession. Six years of work with a few periods of inactivity, especially after I got married. I was glad to have a wife who was supportive for as long as she was of all this. Because when I was working on it, it was every night, in a small studio together with two cats in Berkeley. But she had some inkling of what it takes to put out something like that: she was a fan of the zine ROCKETBUS. She was there to help me exhibit the first time I was at APE, even though crowds triggered all kinds of anxieties for her. Something, granted, she hadn’t told me till we were already set up and meeting said crowds. But she was brave and friendly, and helped me get through what could have been a hard day. It seemed like a happy marriage for a long while till Chicago.
I suppose it was having control of the finished product that appealed to me about self-publishing. They’re both made from scripts, so it seemed that there was no reason, if you’re willing to put in the work, you can’t stage it on paper. That’s exactly how I think of LULU.
When I sent Dave Sim a thank-you later he found it amazing anyone would want to move from theatre to comics. I suppose he must think people make more in theatre outside of Broadway…
DARIUS: You’ve been self-publishing, although not exclusively, almost from the beginning. Was it Sim’s work that attracted you to this route?
ROBERSON: Yes, although my thinking had been in that direction a long time. I was always very obsessed with creator’s rights, and I never burned with any ambition to draw or write Big Two characters, I wanted to do my own.
There were a couple of exceptions to this. One was a Batman story focused on the Joker that Archie Goodwin rejected with a very nice handwritten postcard (which I lost at some point; it even had an “Archie” on it) and another was a story starring Grant Morrison’s Constantine-Meets-Withnail character Willoughby B. Kipling, which I actually would still like to do someday. That one I never sent, and I rarely submitted work to anyone. That’s always been a bad habit of mine; I have to be pushed into it, and most of the time when I have been published it’s been because I was asked.
But again, it was partly Sim and others I knew who’d done it like Steve Bissette, whose Creator’s Rights crusading had also had a huge effect on me. I just didn’t see any reason not to try it myself, as long as I kept the risk low. The high risk involved in having to print hundreds of copies and then getting a distributor–and there was ONLY ONE by that time, 1997–to take all that just offended every bit of Scottish in me. And more seriously, I saw that was a reason so many of those self-publishing ventures fell apart.
DARIUS: Do you mean the cost of printing, the hassle of dealing with distribution, or feeling you and others had to capitulate to this corporate system?
ROBERSON: I do not like the idea of having to decide what genre to tailor something for and then having to write backward toward that. This is the thinking I see in a number of ideas from young hopefuls who have contacted me asking me to draw the dream for free–we all know that guy. He has this can’t-miss idea that he got by examining Diamond’s catalog and what sells. And even if he gets this thing done it’ll be just another indifferently rendered indie comic nobody reads, the most useless possible thing on earth. The big guys have those genres sewn up and all you’re doing then is giving people a less polished version of what they can get elsewhere. I would rather give them something they don’t see elsewhere. You’re not being paid to do it: if you’re going to do your dream, go for it, don’t add to the already-massive pile of zombie and superhero muck. Comics dealers will only put you in a 25 cent bin in three weeks. Better to not make a comic at all than to make one of those comics.
I just want to draw what I feel drawn to. I have some ideas that overlap with certain genres and when promoting them I might forget to even mention those genres. I don’t think that way. And their only purpose is marketing categories, ways of organizing stock. The way I see it is that I do the thing, and then afterward we figure out a label for it. It’s hard to draw when you’ve already put the label over it. Unless you’re being paid. I’ve done commissions–I did illustrations for a sword & sorcery epic sort of thing a few years ago, but that was problem-solving, not art exactly, for me. It was craft, and I love indulging craft; it was fun to figure out how to draw that kind of stuff. And he paid very well, and regularly with each set of illos. I enjoy getting paid. But it’s not something I’d do on my own, nor zombies, nor superheroes, nor much of anything that sells really.
And that seems necessary if you’re going to make stuff a distributor and stores will take. The image of Harvey Pekar with all those copies of AMERICAN SPLENDOR piled up in his garage all those years was a scary one to me. That explained why you found in Chicago so many back issues on comic store racks still at cover price; Harvey had been through. I wasn’t going to take that kind of risk. So being able to print a small number, or on demand, and/or digital, were the only options to my taste. Besides that I’m cheap by nature, I also am usually of very limited means–certainly was then. I do not take risks when money is involved.
So I kept it small when I did PLASTIC, which “Vitriol” ran in. I basically did it as an elaborate zine done at the local Kinko’s (which I bound myself), though apart from no color I think it looked fairly professional. Marie Harrell and the late Rory Root took it at Comic Relief in Berkeley, and were incredibly supportive throughout its run. It was always pretty much a local thing, though–I wasn’t even really a presence on the web as a cartoonist (mostly just as a complainer on the Comics Journal Message Board) till its run was over in 2001.
I did OK when I sold them at APE in 2000. I had a very critical quote from Tom Spurgeon at the online Journal on my sign and people either liked it in a “stick it to the man” way or they thought I was being ironic. Also, I had a corner, we gave cake, and was across from Trina Robbins, who sent people to the table because Trina Robbins is awesome. It was the night before when I had to collate and bind by hand 200 copies of PLASTIC #5–which I sold half of at APE so I guess that’s my highest seller–that I had this weird realization for the first time I really enjoy making books. Which is strange, because that was tedious and took much of the night; I had to be really caffeinated the next day. I think I passed the time while doing it watching RAVENOUS.
I stopped PLASTIC abruptly with issue 8 in 2001. No particular reason, just a transitional period when I was wondering if I needed to bother with print with the web coming into its own. I finished off VITRIOL but ended up just posting it online, and that was pretty much how I self-published till THIS SICKNESS #1 in 2008. Other than that I was mainly published by Eros Comix as far as print, and put together WORKING FOR THE MAN in 2003 in partnership with Unbound Comics (now the name of something else). But that was an e-book. The first long-form anthology of comics (26 creators) designed specifically for that format, by the way. It was a benefit for Bill Loebs and his wife Nadine, whom a Michigan bank had fucked out of their home at the onset of winter. The e-book was done so that we could get it out quickly without having to worry about distribution. Also, it was the only way I knew to put it together. Though as I had no Acrobat Pro then I’m not sure how I did.
The thing is, with the means we have now, there’s no reason to have a publisher except immediate money–and that’s not always a guarantee except with the very biggest. For instance, with Image–who are kicking ass, I’d like to mention–I understand it’s mostly a back-end deal. On the other hand, they have greater reach.
But I like publishing and like that I can do it so easily. I think it’s wonderful we can take for granted what in 1991 was nearly unimaginable. I believe strongly in self-publishing, though I certainly like it when others publish me. I just don’t actively seek it. Money, that I do seek. And sloth without guilt.
DARIUS: You’re known, among other things, for your erotic comics. I like that, in This Sickness #8, there was a dedication to the famous erotic comics artist Guido Crepax. What drew you to erotic comics?
ROBERSON: This one’s actually dedicated to Stefania Casini, the Italian actress from 1900, BELLY OF AN ARCHITECT and BLOOD FOR DRACULA. She’s my basis for my design of Lulu, who I wanted to look like an actress from the ‘70s who might have played a good Lulu. I always liked her and so my Lulu is her as well as I can do in expression, more so specifically in her honor now that she’s aware of this and likes it, because she is a very gracious and generous lady. Facebook can be an amazing thing at times. She’s been a good friend of the book and this one is for her. That was the case before Molly told me what she was drawing.
ROBERSON: Yep. Well, a series I’ve been doing since 2010.
But as far as the dedication, I think you might be thinking of #1, which had THE STORY OF OH and the first panel of that had a dedication to Crepax.
DARIUS: I was rereading some of your work, before this interview, and I’m sure I mixed this up.
ROBERSON: He’d died somewhere in the middle of my working on that, I think. But he was the reason I had initially gotten interested in doing the stuff. My awareness of it–apart from BIRDLAND and the ‘60s / ‘70s underground–started with Serpieri, who I came across in a Virgin megastore in San Francisco in 1996. I suppose it sounds naive but I was amazed this was in a mainstream store. I did not like the stories at all but the art was astounding, and very hot.
Later when my former wife and I moved to Chicago (in my case, returned) thanks to the Enron Crisis crashing CA’s economy and the surging housing cost, I managed to get a reissue copy of the Evergreen editions of Crepax’s works, STORY OF O/JUSTINE being my favorite of the two. I was struck by the intense beauty of his work and the erotic effect of it, and saw this had a peculiar power in comics. It allowed for a very unique visual storytelling nothing else could reproduce. I had no love of porn, although since then I’ve gained an appreciation of sexploitation films of the ‘60s and ‘70s and especially some work of Borowczyk (especially his underseen very condensed but effective, and very racy, version of LULU, very inspirational for my own), Benazeraf and Larraz.
But in comics, it seemed, it worked much better than in other media. The sex could be the plot, all by itself, and could have depth even so. Storytelling through the motion of it, the expressions, breaking down the reactions in the act. And as I was increasingly mistrusting words, something that could really be intense silent and operate on the level of music stylistically. And to be honest, most of my adult life outside of making or consuming art has revolved around my day jobs–not at all an interesting subject to me–and sex & relationships. It’s a subject that I like. It’s part of everyone’s lives. It started to interest me that maybe i could talk about that in comics and do so bluntly, treating sex the same as any other element of the story. Though I didn’t get to something that balanced till Martha, which was autobio. Instead for a long time I just focused on being silly with it, because I had not tried being silly enough, I felt, and needed to. Even Martha is mostly very lighthearted though–the point of it was to do an autobio story that was happy. But I wanted to draw sex. It felt like my subject.
DARIUS: One of the reasons I might have latched onto that Crepax dedication is that I like his work, and your style reminds me of him in places. I had some naughty comics already, but when I discovered Crepax sometime in the late 1990s, it was a revelation. It was one of the Story of O volumes. It was in some weird store, and a girl I had a crush on was with me, and I remember I was worried how she’d take me buying this porno book. She was cool with it, by the way. I’m not sure how erotic I find his style, but I love his sort of elongation of the body. It’s delicate and beautiful, but ugly at times. It’s vaguely realistic — certainly a far cry from more expressionistic or stylized artwork — but has this exaggerated, stretched quality. But I think what struck me most was that he was doing comics porn as long-form literature. I wanted that — the lack of sexuality (outside of superficial fan-service stuff) in American comics and film is horrifying. I think Justine is my favorite of his.
ROBERSON: STORY OF O’s fans are mostly women. Most of the women I have known have had a copy.
I love the elongation of his forms partly because it’s lovely–and those creamy brushstrokes, and the way he uses them sparely to define white space in O–and partly because it makes me feel less bad about my own. There’s still the influence of Russell’s Elric every time I draw a face and they always look long, same with bodies. He carries it off much better than me. His men are always remarkably ugly, don’t you think? Having done it myself I can suggest this is partly to take the focus away from them and toward her. You don’t want to look at them.
Another thing I was struck by is how effective his adaptations are, especially in replacing text with image, like the whole preparation scene at the start of O, which in the book is such florid description, lush paragraphs about the smells of perfumes and powders and the lovely textures of clothes and other things at Roissy. Here he turns it into elaborate whispery shapes in one small exquisite panel piled on another, curving liquid blacks. And in JUSTINE as well, though that’s a lot more verbose–there is no pictorial equivalent of De Sade’s anti-pontifications. No cartoonist has ever done so much justice to his sources when adapting.
So, on the start of the sex comics: I got tired as I got toward the end of drawing VITRIOL, which by then had this developed style of its own it was a lot of work to keep consistent. So I took a break and decided to draw something fast and sketchy, all in pencil, without words, enough for a whole comic. And deliberately nothing I planned to do anything with. Usually I draw nothing without intending to use it in some way, not even much sketching except to prepare for something specific. I chose a subject that would keep me interested and something best shown silently, and that was sex. Specifically it was an experience that happened to me in 1991. This way, I figured, it wouldn’t end up in something else later.
My wife read this and asked me why I didn’t submit it to Eros–she liked BIRDLAND and BLACK KISS–since I’d already been in contact with Kim and Gary when they participated in WORKING FOR THE MAN; Kim had corralled (with Donna Barr) most of the personnel, and Gary had written the intro. So I sent it, it was passed on to Michael Dowers, and it took up all of MENAGE A TROIS #3, though if you look it up, please don’t buy it. I think it looks horrible now and the cover is not me. I kept doing it because it was money and a low-risk way to develop my style. And with Vladrushka, it was a chance to abuse my expensive education in Soviet propaganda and film. Dowers gave me a lot of guidance that helped steer my art in a much more solid direction, I think. More greys to make the art pop out, for instance.
DARIUS: Could you introduce VLADRUSHKA to our readers?
ROBERSON: A perhaps somewhat reprehensible creation that is very dear to my heart. Vladrushka was created so I’d have a regular source of stories for Eros. I also wanted to draw Soviet stuff, parody Soviet propaganda. And a Russian woman, it seemed to me, would be very easy to make sexy. And finally, there had been a girl I’d dated for a while in San Francisco with close-cropped hair (the actual girl showed up in a flashback in MARTHA later on) and tiger stripe tattoos on her legs. I wanted to use those tattoos. I thought they were hot and assumed most others would too. Still haven’t met anyone who’s seen Vladrushka and remarked on the stripes who’s ever seen anyone else with that tattoo. Her way of talking–the mangled English that becomes wordplay, like “I am the star of many movings”–is a cross between Sforz from Cerebus (“I am meeting Famous the Aardvark, yes”) and a Serbian director named Jovan I knew in Chicago.
So I decided she’d be a porn star who’d made pornographic propaganda films in a last-ditch attempt to keep order by the government. And whose films had bankrupted the USSR because she’d always insisted on too many retakes. This of course is absurd–pornography was actually illegal in the USSR–but that was the premise. I started with her having come to America with her director and trying to get funding for a new film. The formula part comes in because of course she will resort to fucking to get it, because Vladrushka will pretty much fuck anyone she sees; she’s quite enthusiastic and proactive on the subject. But she always ends up not getting it because she did that. For instance, in one case she kills the potential funder with a heart attack. And so she has to move on to the next.
This shifted into starting to show some of her films to the reader from the 1970s-80s like “Gulag Gangbang,” a story I’m still fairly fond of. I was using an all-pencil style on her by then and that was my most developed one. I killed forests with the pencils I went through on that. Each panel you see in it was a separate full-sized drawing, and not drawn in the order you see it. A very free way of working I wish I could use on other projects. I ended up doing 5 stories with her, 4 with Eros, and then the first part of a story she would have come into later.
I still have plans for revealing more about her background, like the origin story mentioned on the bio page I have for her. And then there’s her daughters who aspire to be like he, London and Berlin. That’s a whole other section of wrong. Problem is that I can’t tone her down. It’s not how she’s designed: she has to be explicit and the stories have to feature sex, whatever else they have. And as this has gotten her banned from all print after Eros, I have to focus on what I can print.
But doing the smut was also a bit of a mental rest for me, a way of getting toward more intuitive storytelling and focusing more on drawing for a while, mainly because of a massive trauma. For unrelated reasons, I got divorced in 2004–jarringly she remained a fan of my smut–and for a long dark while did not want to think of anything heavy or personal. I don’t like to write personal stuff anyway, but during that time I just wanted to draw something well without having to think too hard. I’d also just finished VITRIOL and that was a 6-year project, so I was also tired from that. So I chose to explore just doing entertainment, which in this case was hardcore smut comics. Oddly, it was my attempt to be positive.
Also, I was, again, in the wake of a divorce ending a six-year monogamous commitment, and newly unattached and bitter about it, and I’ll be frank: many, many times, my work got me laid post-divorce in Chicago and Seattle. That’s a powerful incentive to draw more of them.
DARIUS: I love that you’re frank about that. It’s something we don’t talk about publicly, how artistic creation is tied to sex. I sometimes see creators at conventions with fans, and people talk privately about who’s always at the bar, looking for groupies, or whatever. In your case, were these fans, or people you introduced to your work?
ROBERSON: I almost never come anywhere near others who like comics IRL, and those I do know otherwise are mostly colleagues. More often I’m their intro to comics–many friends and girlfriends. In this case, these were girls I had met and then they’d find out I was a cartoonist and want to see my work and I’d think, okay, here’s where I test how much about me they can handle, and showed it to them–and this only created immediate interest in getting together, every single time. This was where I got over any doubts my work might be offensive to women.
Matter of fact, they liked the BDSM stories the best. I do not claim to know why this is. But my impression is women think about sex a hell of a lot more thoroughly than men. Just not in the same way, maybe. I don’t know–I’ve spent most of my life around women, far more rarely men, and I have always had the impression if anything, men are more uptight about the subject of sex than women are. It’s something I think about in connection to the thing about men wanting to possess Lulu, and Lulu just wanting to enjoy life.
For Eros, I ended up doing four 5-pagers, and two 24-pagers, one at either end of that period, 2003-2006. A lot of it was done by drawing single full-size images out of order like film footage–around a loose plot, but this way I could draw the most interesting things first and fill in from there. Then putting it together as a story in Photoshop–Marvel style, with the dialogue last, a way I actually like to work.
I was being paid and published till 2006, so there was that too. Though it paid extremely little. But I do strongly believe in a lack of coyness on the subject, and think comics are the best vehicle for the topic of sex. Nowadays I do very little of the overt smut, but I’m also not shy when sex shows up in my work. I think working on the more explicit stuff–with Eros you had to have fucking at least every other page–made me braver about it, improved my anatomy and composition, and overall made me a much better storyteller and artist. But I’m not as interested in it now except as a component of a larger story, rather than for its own sake–I got burned out on that side of it. There’s only so many ways you can draw people fucking before it becomes like math.
The advantage is that, having already crossed a huge amount of lines, you can get away with really crazy stuff in it that has nothing necessarily to do with the sex. The disadvantage is that people may not notice that because of the sex. I suppose the only reason people really noticed the satire in VLADRUSHKA was because my drawing was too crappy to turn anyone on then.
DARIUS: You’re too modest. It’s the age of oversharing and bragging, John!
What do you mean by “really crazy stuff” that people don’t notice because of the sex?
ROBERSON: Soft Ceiling, the BDSM stuff was so hot to people who read it–so they said–they completely missed how horrific it was just below the surface, that this was an illustration of corporate capitalism in action. Of course there’s a reverse of that. Sometimes people see depth that I don’t. I did study Eisenstein, but I still don’t know what in Vladrushka reminded Pilcher & Kannenberg of his work. But I’m grateful for that anyway.
Suzy Spreadwell’s one where I’m not sure the satire is as clear as it could be to some. But ideally, I would love some right-wing Christian with no sense of irony to completely misunderstand it and believe it’s a cautionary tale about temptation.
DARIUS: This Sickness #8 is the first issue in five years. Could you talk about the evolution of This Sickness?
ROBERSON: Well, it began with the smut. The late Joey Manley, who was really good to me, used to have a sort of subscription comics syndication site, Modern Tales. He was really the pioneer with that. Roger Langridge’s FRED THE CLOWN was a success there early on. I never made it on the site, but I’d been told he was fond of my work. He and his partner Joe Botts branched out to erotic comics with Adultwebcomics.com (which is not the same thing now, don’t go there). I saw this announced, made my pitch, and began alongside Dale Lazarov and Jess Fink. That’s where I came up with the umbrella title “This Sickness”, which as with PLASTIC was just what came to mind when I began thinking. It came from an Iggy Pop song in AMERICAN CAESAR. I serialized all my stuff from Eros, including the stuff they hadn’t published, like SOFT CEILING (though in that case, I see why now, it’s dreadful). And STORY OF OH!, which had originally been a short film script Charles Alverson had submitted as one of a number of possible things in WORKING FOR THE MAN. Sam Henderson did another one, and I did yet another, “Rapunzel.” At this point it was appropriate, so I dove into it. Still think it’s the best thing I did in that genre. I had pretty high pageviews, though not as high as Dale’s or Jess. The only thing was, it was the only place in his webcomics network you could not be paid. The porn was free! Because their payment processors would not work with it. So I got nothing out of it but exposure but that was helpful. That was what caught Pilcher and Kannenberg’s attention in EROTIC COMICS 2. It certainly helped Dale and Jess, who both have nicely-running operations around their smut comics. But they’re better at business than I am, and more talented, especially Jess.
When I came across Cafepress, I decided to make a print version of THIS SICKNESS and started with OH!, and in the first four issues issued all the stuff I’d had up on AWC, the 3rd for instance being all the Vladrushka stories to date. Much cheaper format than I use now–more akin to Fantagraphics stuff in the 1980s, magazine-size.
That began in 2008 and it all remained up for sale at Cafepress till very mid-2010. In the fifth issue, I did “Martha,” a new work, also “adult”, but autobiographical and a bit more serious than previously. Also, after about page 3 it was the first story I inked digitally. I had gotten tired of the risk posed by ink bottles in my cat’s presence. I’ve inked almost nothing with real ink since.
Late 2009 I finally started LULU, which I’d been mulling over a long time. I’d wanted to do an adaptation of something modernist. I wanted to do storytelling like P. Craig Russell in SALOME especially, which I’d recently been reading again & again along with re-reading Muth’s version of M and wanting to pursue grey textures like that, but with sharp black linework. I’d thought of WOYZECK but after my divorce it didn’t seem a very healthy work to involve myself with deeply. So LULU was the lighter choice. I also decided to tone down the content of my work because I was tired of limitations in marketing it. So I decided to do something that, while it involved sex and is considered a scandalous work, was not smut as such. Something in which I could deal with sex in a more human way. And I had this idea of inverting the femme fatale with my Lulu.
DARIUS: First, I continue to love your inspirations. Muth’s M, in particular, is just wonderful. It’s a shame it’s not in print.
JOHN: Isn’t it? I have a hardcover collection of it now from Abrams that isn’t that old, maybe less than ten years… (checks Amazon) It’s totally in print, you’ll be happy to know. I’ve liked Muth since MOONSHADOW, a book I still like a lot. Also DRACULA: A SYMPHONY OF MOONLIGHT & NIGHTMARES, which is the best piece of goth ever published by Marvel.
DARIUS: Thanks for checking that! I guess I’m fact-challenged today. (I just have the old issues of M.)
Perhaps you could talk about what LULU is (and WOYZECK), for readers not familiar with the source material — I don’t think most readers will be.
ROBERSON: WOYZECK was a play from the mid-1800s by Georg Buchner, who died quite young, in fact before he’d finished the play. No one even knows what order he meant the scenes to be in, so each director has to choose that. The play revolves around a soldier who slowly goes insane from jealousy (and from an experiment for extra money an army doctor is doing on him, having him eat only peas) and stabs his wife, or live-in girlfriend, to death when he finds out she’s cheating on him with a tall, handsome drum major. There’s quite a good Werner Herzog film of it starring Klaus Kinski, and that made me want to do a version of it. Most especially when I read a story about how three soldiers among those to return first from Iraq, all from the same base, all murdered their wives in the same week. I thought it might be interesting to connect it up to that and set it in the present, as I have with LULU. But it was way too intense and I didn’t feel it would be very cathartic to do a story about a man who stabs his wife to death while still trying to heal from a painful divorce.
While with LULU I knew it would be years before I got to the stabbing part, as it’s at the end and it’s a very long work. That had been something I’d been looking at off and on for a while and had been toying with doing as comics. I wanted to do some kind of play as comics, and not one of my own. The ones I really want to do are in copyright, so I had to look at older stuff. There’s something about the character that intrigued me. It’s a set of two somewhat scandalous plays–later banned by the Nazis as “decadent”, along with Alban Berg’s opera of it–by Frank Wedekind, from about 1895. Erdgeist [Earth Spirit] and Pandora’s Box. They started out as one massive work he called his “monster tragedy,” which he split in two not unlike Kill Bill and for much the same reason. They’re usually referred to as “sex tragedies.” They were quite ahead of their time and still a little shocking today, as it deals with a lot of uncomfortable ambiguities of sexual politics, and very much the issue of agency. They concern the free-spirited Lulu and the various attempts by men to possess her and her utter confusion that they’d even want to. These men often die in the play–she goes through four husbands–though only in one case is it at all her doing.
Often when the work is done she’s called a “femme fatale,” and I don’t find that. I see men with a death wish, conscious or not, who use her as an excuse to attain it. I think Lulu loves everybody and that’s the tragedy, possibly of it; I kept thinking, if this is a tragedy, who is the tragic figure and why? What is their flaw? And it’s her and her flaw, what destines her for her doom, is what should not be a flaw–a fetish for joy, and loving anyone she wants to. Which in the context of this world crushes her. She’s the INVERSE of a femme fatale, even a critique of it, as it was already a thing by Wedekind’s time. He really was quite ahead of his era. You see that also in SPRING AWAKENING in his treatment of homosexuality–and also in LULU, with his empathy for Geschwitz, a very sad figure but no more or less so than all the men who want to own Lulu, as she too does.
It was pretty much clinched when I came across–and I don’t even know how I found it–Walerian Borowczyk’s LULU during 2009, which I spent watching a lot of movies because I was unemployed the whole year. It was very compressed, but the main points of the plot were there. And something clicked, and I decided to start drawing it. I had plenty of time to that year.
And that plus some other stuff that hadn’t been printed yet was the issue of THIS SICKNESS, #6, that caught Cafepress’ attention and got all of them banned. I yelled at them so much on the phone that day. This was the issue that had the LEAST sex in it. Basically, we see Lulu behind a screen for a couple of pages as she changes into her translucent Pierrot costume. Pretty mild. Sexy, yes, I hope. But surely that’s allowed?…
Fortunately, I found Createspace. I decided to make the issues of THIS SICKNESS that were full-length things into their own books and make THIS SICKNESS #6 the start of a “classier” vol. 2, self-contained. The book was a vehicle for my own work–still is, just with more stuff–apart from collaborations. I also had a 48-page minimum to get a free ISBN, so that encouraged me to find back-up material from people I know and like.
The last one had Sam Henderson, who’d been in PLASTIC, and Ashley Holt, who was kind enough to let me use some of BEDBUGS. In between there was the first LULU collection which also had the material that wasn’t published in THIS SICKNESS.
This one [#8] is almost everything I’ve done since LULU Book 1 came out, and I already had way more than 48 pages in, but really I wanted to put together a big fat compilation of interesting stuff in an interesting way, and to publish Emily’s paintings, now that I could do color. I wanted to put together a good book I’d want to buy.
DARIUS: I think you’ve succeeded.
ROBERSON: That’s nice of you to say!
The next issue might be shorter, or longer. It’s a whim thing. I do like the way this one came together and Createspace is now doing a great printing job. All very dark and solid, better than on my monitor really. It tempts me to try more ambitious stuff in future. Stuart Moore gave me some excellent advice that helped me give it whatever dynamic it’s got.
DARIUS: What was that advice?
ROBERSON: Just on how to think about ordering the color vs the black & white, and how that would affect the flow. And how to place long blocks of wordless content like Emily’s stuff. Nothing that specific, just casual tips but they nudged me in the right direction. Stuart’s a very nice guy, and was responsible for some of my favorite DC books.
I do know I really love putting together and publishing books, especially print on demand where I have just as high quality as other books but much more control. If I did not have to work a day job and had more time to finish projects I’d be publishing at least twice as much.
I could do with a better commercial sense and awareness of what sells, I suppose. I love the medium but pay as little attention as I can to the industry. I just want to get on with what I’m doing; it’s slow enough as it is. I’ll be dead before I finish LULU, which at least is traditional.
Tomorrow: part two, in which we discuss erotic comics, censorship, and the contents of This Sickness #8!