Yesterday, we began a career-spanning interview with John Linton Roberson, whose 100-page anthology This Sickness #8 is just out! If you haven’t read part 1, click here, and then come back here for part two.
DARIUS: One of the things I liked most about This Sickness #8 is that it presents comics seriously, by which I mean that it presents comics alongside other artistic work — artwork, poetry, and prose (including a story by Martian Lit alumn CS DeWildt). That’s a notion dear to my heart — my own Martian Lit published fiction and poetry before it did comics, and I very much wish comics had more of a dialogue with other forms of art. Is this something that’s important to you, as a creator and a writer?
ROBERSON: Eclecticism is important to me, I guess. I read comics, but also lots of other things and my influences range sluttishly across several arts and eras. So I guess my mind naturally goes, if it has the materials to work with, toward making things along those lines. The first thing was that I wanted to have a big section for Emily’s paintings. This was partly as insurance if SUZY SPREADWELL got it banned and I had to cut it, but the justification for the backups is always stuff like that. But I love Emily and I love her work and I wanted to showcase it printed really nicely because it should be. Watching Emily back when we were roommates re-taught me to draw, properly, and made me want to though I didn’t start again till 1997; it did start the notion brewing. Just her, my unused sketchbook, and a ballpoint she used like graphite scrunched up in a chair in the corner. Often naked. Chicago summers get sweltering.
When it came time to resume my own later, a lot of technique came from what I’d seen her do. I owe her a lot. I hope to finally corral her into drawing a story for me. We started to once, with PUMPKIN BOY, which was sent to Dave Sim as a Single Page for Cerebus Bi-Weekly. He offered to give us ten pages. I think we kind of chickened out & never got back to him. I do remember writing some kind of story, but I don’t have it anymore if so. After that she did less cartooning and started making the kind of brilliant art and animation she does today.
I’d love to write and have someone else draw it for once–usually when I collaborate I’m the one drawing–and with her, oh my god. I love her work so much. I wish I had that kind of mad flow of distinct, vivid images. She is a goddamn genius and I’m honored to have known her so long. Also a very funny lady, and a bit of an animation expert–I recommend her blog YOUR DAILY CARTOON.
Then it seemed to me there was way too much visual and I wanted more words, so I asked Chad and Chris. Then the words seemed to need images. I happened to see Gianna’s art one day and wanted to start with the eye as you opened. And I wanted two of them to go with Chad’s poems. And I made one myself for Chris, but that had already been the intent; I’d done one for another story of his at Martian Lit. Meanwhile, I had won a friendly bet with Molly Kiely and got this amazing cover out of her. I’m sure she realized I’d love that she drew Stefania, but I didn’t ask her to and the dedication was already made. It just emerged this way as I went as a sort of building dynamic of things expressible on paper. Very organic, like mold. It just seemed like this had to be its shape.
If you include source material, with LULU, it even covers theatre. And with “Strange Fruit,” music too. I really do like that it ranges all over the place. I wanted it to feel like A1 or TABOO. I don’t know who the hell it’ll appeal to. But still.
I guess one can view it as the print equivalent of a bunch of friends getting really high together…
DARIUS: I loved A1 and Taboo. And I think you’ve accomplished that.
Returning to the erotic, I’m struck by how much our reception of erotic material has changed. I was born in the 1970s, and I grew up in the very repressive 1980s, but my culture was academic. As a young adult, I was drawn to Crepax, Manara, Crumb, and the lost classic that is Phoebe Zeit-Geist. It’s hard for a lot of people to understand, but back in 1960s America, erotic content was by itself culturally transgressive. There were obscenity trials. This kind of material was still a breath of fresh air to me, as a Midwestern American in the 1990s. And I still think we’re repressed — in fact, I’m on the side of those who want to unite pornography with high art. However, I feel like it’s hard to read a lot of this material today. Something like Barbarella (I’m thinking more of the movie than the original comic here) is so possessed of this naive idea that sex is an antidote to a violent male paradigm, but obviously it’s also silly sexploitation for a largely heterosexual male audience. In comics, we’ve opened up a lot of feminist discussions since 2011 or so, and you hear or read mainstream debates about female characters’ depictions pretty regularly now. And I’m all for that. Women are treated terribly in comics, in ways that really hurt the medium and its growth. But it’s changed the way we read, and it’s hard for me to read erotic comics in quite the same way. I wonder if you feel like you’ve had to respond to this climate, given your work.
ROBERSON: I happen to love PHOEBE ZEIT-GEIST and Michael O’Donoghue. It was a magnificent satire of That Kind of Thing Grove Published. And it’s been a huge inspiration. I wish there was some collection of all his work like that and the early Lampoon, which I worship, somewhere.
DARIUS: Are you talking about early National Lampoon?
ROBERSON: Very much so. I love the early Lampoon, both the magazine and the radio stuff. Brilliant satire, perfect magazine design. And I love RADIO DINNER, and the MISSING WHITE HOUSE TAPES record, but I’ve always had an unhealthy fixation on Nixon. It’s a family trait.
I was thinking about Pasolini in regards to this issue, though, and it’s a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot ever since I started LULU and started moving away from the overt smut. In Pasolini’s TRILOGY OF LIFE films–Decameron, Canterbury Tales, and Arabian Nights–he chose to do these three very bawdy sets of stories from an earlier, pre-industrial world (and largely from the street-level poor’s point of view, which he considered most genuinely human) because he wanted to show life–and especially sex–as it was before it became a commodity. In these films, sex is treated very frankly. I love films of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, so I’m used to that, but younger people now would probably consider that stuff soft-core porn. (Same with another film I love, WR: The Mysteries of the Organism.) Which already negates the effect–they have little to contrast it to, and there isn’t anything transgressive about it to them. And this was the feeling that depressed Pasolini so much in the wake of the Trilogy, but for different reasons.
Because these were all public domain works he was adapting–quick-buck Italian studios immediately started turning out their own hardcore and softcore imitations. Pasolini saw what he had done become another way to commodify sex. He ended up repudiating the Trilogy, and SALO was a burst of anger not unlike Chaykin’s BLACK KISS was, in his case a blast of hate at Hollywood, where he’d been working. This was the reason Pasolini did a film about bodies reduced to commodities. Side note: look at an Abercrombie catalog when watching SALO sometime. It’s instructive to compare. Pasolini was clever.
And that is a problem now with doing sexual material. It’s a commodity and yet one people get for free. The very act of making such stuff now at best just adds to the pile, pigeonholes your work (it’s taken me years to dig out of that) and makes people ignore any larger point you’re presenting. But also at worst, you get banned, apart from putting it on the web for free–and that’s a LOT of work to do for something you can’t make a book eventually–and can’t sell your stuff. And I’ve had many, many books I spent ages on banned from under me, so I try to be more strategic in how I approach it now. Obviously, in SUZY, I still go there, but the game I’m playing there is how much I can intensify it while never technically showing anything bannable. Also, the purity ring thing is very much the target there and how it causes the sexual instincts that will come out anyway to get even more baroque and twisted. Which to me seems like excellent grist for farce.
The politics of it are pretty difficult for me. I’ve had doubts about a lot of that stuff I did, but mostly the readers I know about who read that stuff and liked it were women. It’s not sexual material women object to, otherwise SMUT PEDDLER couldn’t exist. Most women I have known had more perverse sexual imaginations than any man. Not even transgressive stuff is the issue, therefore.
It is fantasy and sometimes fantasy is indefensible. Susan Sontag, whom I’m very fond of, wrote about pornography in Styles of Radical Will and spoke of pornography being in an “endless land of yes,” a level of reality that was specifically meant to be absurd from its very premise, a reason it often functions best as comedy or parody. It’s “pornography” when it simply gets straight to the point and serves nothing but the function of an aid to masturbation. And it’s why I don’t like to describe what I have done in that mode as porn. I like the term smut better, because it’s unpretentious and Tom Lehrer used it. But I like to think the sex came out of the ridiculous story setup naturally.
It’s male gaze, it’s lack of female agency, it’s joylessness that’s offensive. Fantasies of male dominance and revenge, manifestations of lonely bitterness and rejection. Most American sex comics till very recently were fairly ugly, ugly-minded even if well-drawn, like Wendy Whitebread. Birdland was more the kind of thing that appealed to me, but other than that I was looking at Europe, mainly Italians. Lately I’ve been looking at Jordi Bernet. His flexibility of style baffles me.
Some stuff I’d end up alongside at Eros when I did 5-pagers, except Molly, really grossed me out. It looked to me like they had a disrespect for their own material, like they weren’t having a whole lot of fun with it, perhaps were a little ashamed or didn’t feel like sex comics were worth the effort. The pay was incredibly low, but I still believe one does one’s best work anyway. It reminds me of the sad sex comics Wally Wood did toward the end of his life, where everyone looks bitter and bored, reflecting his depression at the time. And there is nothing more soul-crushing than a sad sex comic. But ultimately, when it comes to indie sex comics, it seems inevitable that’s more likely to become web-only than anything else. Especially as your Comixology or Google Play won’t allow that except with the major-name creators like Crepax or Chaykin.
But they will allow Avatar’s necro-porn like CROSSED with its horribly drawn rape zombies, of course. People fucking for fun is out, zombie rape is okay.
In the mainstream, though, all criticisms levelled by its consumers are valid. But really, a lot of this shit is cheap and obvious–you don’t get Manara to do your cover unless you had a butt shot in mind.
DARIUS: I don’t know about that. Manara’s work is beautiful, and most of it’s the opposite of the kind of obvious butt-shot kind of thing. I don’t know if a Marvel editor specifically asked for that, or maybe Manara was asked for something sexy but not X-rated, and he figured that was what Marvel wanted. I don’t know.
ROBERSON: I like Manara as well, though I dislike the sameness of his women and their lack of noses. Particularly like INDIAN SUMMER. I’ll admit he’s not much of a favorite for me–I like Crepax much more. But in all his Marvel work it’s obvious to me what part of what he does they hired him for. And that’s perfectly valid. I wasn’t as worked up over that cover as some were–cheesecake was inherent to that design of Spider-Woman. The design needed changing so they could pretend there was some other reason anyone was looking at the character and keep a trademark they might want for the movies viable. But the cover was designed to be well-done fanboy wank.
DARIUS: Going back, I think you’re right about how “people fucking for fun is out, zombie rape is okay.” As long as you don’t see the zombies’ genitals. It’s the effect of censorship: things get displaced, and they tend to come out in more extreme ways. So there’s this hostility towards actual sexuality — the fact that people are sexual beings and are contradictory and kinky — while sex itself is everywhere. And the kids are all downloading — or at least have all seen — some violent and weird pornography. There’s this radical disconnect, when pre-teens know terms like “donkey punch” but movies and comics have little nudity and no sexuality, at least in any serious way.
ROBERSON: I actually do not know the term “donkey punch.” (looks it up) EW, that’s a thing?
Or you have something like the incredibly Puritan Shame, where you can deal with sex explicitly as long as it’s treated like a sickness or addiction. The second half of Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac repulsed me for the same reason. You wouldn’t see something like Cronenberg’s Crash now, which like most of both him and Ballard, is disturbing because they like what’s happening to them. But movies are dead–the most talented people in that direction now mostly work in TV.
DARIUS: The kind of censorship you’ve experienced — and the fact that it forces you to make contingency plans about each volume you publish — is really frustrating to me. This situation is just anti-art, and it’s anti-American to my mind. You’d think Americans in particular would value freedom of speech more, but the reality is that corporations control distribution. So we arrive at a situation like the MPAA with movie theaters — sure, you have the right to make a movie, or to screen it, but in practice you can’t get it into theaters except locally, one at a time.
You can also look at how Google’s rules for its ads (and search results) have totally changed web content. It used to be a lot more common for a movie site, for example, to discuss transgressive or sexual films, alongside other work, in a much more natural way. Now, I literally see posts where the webmaster has added black bars, even while the text is denouncing censorship — because without those black bars, Google could suspend the site. Heck, Google can do so anyway, and it seems somewhat arbitrary.
You mentioned how digital distribution has allowed publication options that didn’t exist before, and that’s wonderful. But the flipside is that these avenues of digital distribution are controlled by corporations. If your book isn’t on Amazon, or your comic isn’t on ComiXology, or either isn’t on iTunes, it’s very hard to establish an audience. Hell, it’s hard to establish an audience anyway, as an independent creator. Then you do, and these companies can just arbitrarily delist everything. Even while they permit more explicit material from corporations they don’t want to alienate. It’s a troubling downside to the digital revolution, and I don’t know that it’s culturally wise to push discussion or depiction of sex (for example) outside of the mainstream, rather than taking an integrative approach.
I know you’ve talked about this elsewhere, but perhaps you could talk a bit about how you’ve dealt with this censorship?
ROBERSON: Well, there was Cafepress, which I mentioned earlier, may they rot in hell. But Createspace has had its moments. In 2011 they “suppressed” (that’s literally the term that was used when I looked at my list of books in my dashboard online) a collection of my Vladrushka stories–basically just a reprint of THIS SICKNESS #3; and TRADE, which was to collect “Story of OH!” and “Soft Ceiling,” so that made it a collection of THIS SICKNESS 1 and 2. It was called TRADE because both stories use BDSM as a metaphor for transactional capitalism, a probably obvious theme I keep returning to and I blame SALO for that. I’m glad that MARTHA remains at least, which I think has to do with its being autobio because it’s no less explicit than those others. Perhaps a bit more romantic and the sex presented is more vanilla; it’s nicer.
Pissed me off–TRADE had one of my favorite covers I’ve done. And formatting these books takes weeks and weeks, partly because Createspace, to its credit, will not let anything through that isn’t properly set up to print well, so if you have a page that’s set up poorly they bounce it back till you correct it. But I spent a long time getting these right and it was all wasted. They actually made me promise never to submit again any more “pornography” on pain of being banned.
I had announced these things, and they might have sold. But as they did not in fact come out–though I have proof copies of all of them, and they would have looked very nice–I looked a bit of an idiot and these books like vaporware. This is the kind of thing that helps keep me obscure and makes people stop paying attention.
That’s time I can’t get back, and that’s the case every time this happens. Most recently when I tried to post my back catalog to Google Play Books. I happen to use that myself, as it happens, and rather like it as an e-book storage platform. It works very well on phones. I looked into what they seem to have available, and they have a LOT of very questionable and explicit material for sale, most of it prose with cheesy Photoshop covers. Incest porn. Werewolf porn. A whole lot of BDSM. A whole lot of crap, basically, and very profitable crap.
So I thought it might be a good venue for my own stuff because nothing I have done is nearly as icky as that. Even the smut always has some sort of more serious point I’m sneaking in. But why, apart from age limitation, which is fine with me, is sexual stuff treated any differently at this point than any other genre? But if your name is sufficiently big, it’s not.
Anyway, I really would like to have all my stuff available for sale. A lot of work went into it. But after posting it, VLADRUSHKA and TRADE were cut right away, and then so was MARTHA. But then so was LULU! LULU–Book 1, anyway, not so much after–has a lot of nudity, which you often see in versions of the opera, but was designed as an “R.”
The frustrating thing about that especially is that LULU was originally conceived as my attempt to reach a somewhat more “classy” audience. I wanted to tackle a piece of high art, a piece of theatre to further my attempts to apply theatre thinking to comics storytelling, and perhaps attract non-comics readers and attention. And it was successful in that–most of the attention it’s gotten, like the Deutsches Theatremuseum in Munich when they showed art from the book, has been from outside comics, while most of its readers in comics are professionals, not fans. And so it’s taken seriously by its “high art” audience, while being repressed by Google because it’s comics, and therefore visual, and we can’t see boobies and butts because… some reason, I’m sure I don’t know. I was never told why they were banned or given any recourse. THIS SICKNESS #8 is up there so far, despite the presence of Suzy, so we’ll see.
I always have my website. But I can make not one dime from that. I find it irritating having so much of my work up for free because I can’t issue it commercially. This eats at me every day I have to work a day job because I can’t make a living doing this. But I do it anyway. I have to. I can’t stop. If I’m not making stuff I get edgy after a short time. I’m suffering post-partum from the end of THIS SICKNESS #8; it still feels like I should be doing something. So I’ll write and draw no matter what. It just means I never have any time to myself and have to sacrifice a lot of what others call a life to do it. The amount of my “free time” I’ve had to spend on this, rather than just doing it in regular work hours, has impacted on my personal relationships, rendered a social life impossible, and left me not especially happy much of the time, to be honest. It’s a long slog and I think I’ve built a decent body of work, but I am severely limited in my ability to profit from it. And this is mostly stuff that was already published by Eros/Fantagraphics! Comics that had bare tits on the covers and were right there in stores. When I tried to republish them I censored that on the covers unprompted out of caution. Not that it did much good.
And I stopped work on a story because of this, a new epic color story I’d planned out very extensively, and scripted much of too, starring Vladrushka and revealing the famous public domain character Octobriana as her long-lost sister. It was going to be an attempt to pivot her from smut to something more “underground” in general, still quite explicit but broader in thematic scope. And I was going to throw in a LOT of PD characters, most especially STARDUST. (Paul Karasik, who’s on my FB friends list, said he wanted to see this when I announced it.) And Lang’s Dr. Mabuse was to be the central villain, and I was going to parody DC’s parallel universe fixation and come up with different styles for each universe and lots of other stuff. You can see the first chapter on my site. But I simply cannot devote the time it would take to this, when all I will be able to do is post it to my site for people to read for free. The story was written about on two pages of a recent book by John A. Short on OCTOBRIANA. Again, it probably will never be continued unless I get a publisher besides myself, something I’m, as usual, not seeking actively. (Though I’m always happy to be contacted; I am not resistant to a publisher who lets me do what I do.) But I think my stuff is a bit too difficult to pin down, and market, for most publishers nowadays. Certainly is for me, but I’m a terrible salesman and promoter of my own work. I just want to produce it and that’s a failing.
It’s caused me a great deal of harm, censorship, and it has held me back. And it’s needless and based on a shallow reading of my work. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with drawing sex, or sex as a subject, and comics should not be treated any differently than prose. And Google certainly has no problem with Avatar.
ComiXology turned down everything but LULU. I never submitted the last two issues of THIS SICKNESS but #8 is still under consideration, which takes them an insanely long time and makes it impossible to promote, so I’m not thinking much about it. As for the others, I was never told why they were turned down. But they included all the same smut that Createspace turned down. At least Createspace told me why. Maybe they didn’t think they were up to standard, and that’s fair, they are old work and I don’t like the drawing on most of them except “Story of Oh,” which I’m still very proud of, partly because it was fun to work with Charles Alverson again. (He also has a new one-page gag cartoon I drew in #8.) And they carry BLACK KISS 1 & 2 and Crepax’ STORY OF O, which is great in both cases. I just wish they’d let my stuff find an audience too.
I’ve been doing this so long and I’m still treated like a hobbyist. Sometimes it makes me feel like I’m deluding myself and all this stuff I’ve done is crap. Even though for most of my career I’ve had nothing but positive reviews and feedback. I’m in the wrong medium, perhaps, to be someone who does work that’s as problematic as mine usually is. People like Tim Pilcher have said I’m one of America’s best erotic cartoonists, not that I want to be pinned down to that label; but he and Kannenberg also once compared me favorably to Eisenstein and I’ll take that. But if you are cut off from even finding out if you can make anything off it (certainly not much from Eros–$400 for a 24-pager isn’t much per page) it’s not much of an achievement. It’s like being the best banjo player in Minnesota.
All very depressing, really. But I have to keep brainwashing myself that making it is its own reward and that I’m doing it because it has to be done. Fits in with the title of the comic.
DARIUS: I wish I could snap my fingers and get you to be more optimistic. But it’s really hard to make money on comics in any case, and the censorship problems that go along with erotic content exacerbate this. It’s frustrating to me, so I’m sure it’s insanely frustrating to you. But you’re a true artist — which is why you get frustrated when you’re not working on something, and why you don’t give up. I’m the same way.
I feel like your experiences point to the inconsistency of a lot of these platforms. Like you said, Black Kiss goes up, but others get censored. A lot of it is who’s got a big name, or who they expect to sell, or which publishers they don’t want to offend. Of course, this also gets at how dumb censorship is, to begin with. Someone has to rate this stuff — or at least accept or reject it — and the reality is that this is a team of people making margin calls that aren’t going to be consistent over tens of thousands of products. I suppose you have to have ratings, but it seems so inconsistent and arbitrary. And what is the point? I can go into any bookstore and find tons of stuff that’s way more extreme. The Iliad starts with an argument over who gets a slave girl, captured in war. It’s rape. But you know, that’s a classic, and it’s not typically illustrated. Still, go into any museum, and there’s nudity and sexuality everwhere. But comics and movies? We don’t really see them as art.
I know Kindle isn’t an ideal format for comics, but what’s been your experience with that? When you were talking about porn titles with Photoshopped covers, it reminded me of Kindle books. Those apparently get banned all the time, but there seems to be a certain amount of tolerance.
Also, I know Google ads don’t run on sites with porn (or even nude or violent images — and Google’s pretty inconsistent), but what about Project Wonderful? There are platforms to make money from a website that are friendly to adult content. It’s web traffic — no one gets rich. But it’s something.
ROBERSON: I host Project Wonderful ads; people sometimes advertise on my site and sometimes I make a little off that, but a dribble. I haven’t done any myself because I haven’t got much of a budget. My promotion is mainly Facebook, Twitter, and my blog that’s been around since 2002.
As for Kindle, I have some works on that. The current THIS SICKNESS and the previous two issues are available in the format. LULU is not but I’m working on that. But the others were rejected just like always.
We see comics as commerce again, and while that has helped them succeed and be taken more seriously, it also often holds them to the rules governing products more than of art.
DARIUS: Suzy Spreadwell, which debuts in This Sickness #8, feels like a very classic erotic character, despite that she’s new. I think the images of her having sex with an American flag — and the accompanying narration — make a strong impression on the reader. Reading it, I had a “I can’t believe he’s going for this” feeling, and it could have come off as hokey, but I think it comes off instead as this kind of horrific blend of patriotism and religion (which should never go together in a secular government like ours), of repression and self-yielding, of the star-spangled banner and tentacle rape. It was arresting stuff. Maybe you could talk about the politics of this, and how you see the kind of repression you’re parodying in that story working?
ROBERSON: I like that reaction!
Suzy was something that arose spontaneously in my sketchbook after a re-read of Terry Southern’s CANDY, something I’ve toyed with illustrating–not adapting–from time to time in the back of my mind. It crossed my head, what if you took that kind of naif character and applied it instead to Moral Orel type of red America? I’d been reading about the Purity Ring thing around then, and all the loopholes that they exploit to get around that–such as blowjobs and anal sex–and it seemed like ripe territory to explore the explosive effects of sexual repression, and it seemed inherently funny. And I grew up in the South, so I decided to set this there. And I threw a whole lot of Betty Cooper into her, most especially in her dress sense and earnestness. And also some of Kim Egler in a pictorial I remembered seeing in PLAYBOY in 1989 where she’s on a bike.
I also decided that I would not show anything explicit but rather would push up the intensity of what I was allowed to do. So in the first chapter, yes, she’s fucking the devil, but according to the rules, because we see no genitals, and indeed no breasts (her top remains on) it’s not “explicit.” It’s actually within magazine cover conventions; I’ve seen more overt nudity on the cover of VANITY FAIR. It is very traditional. There’s a long line of women fucking the devil even in some Christian art, especially stuff about witches. I watched a lot of HAXAN while working on this. And JOE. The flag on the title page, by the way, uses the stripes of Jasper Johns’ as the basis of the collage. But anyway, what’s going on within that is meant to be much more shocking, but in a manner censorship has a harder time with.
Like the flag thing, which actually also arose spontaneously once I was actually drawing the story, which is scripted. Though my scripts may be different from others–they’re still written like stage scripts in terms of scenes, and are never broken down by page or panel because I think doing that at the word stage is artificial and limits the art. Description of what’s there and what’s happening is enough–the artist side of me should have to “stage” that rather than building from instructions. In the script there’s very little mentioned between her admiration of the flag and the devil coming along. But when I was drawing it the idea the flag might feel her up occurred to me, that she would like it like a fetish object even more so, and it just rolled on for a few pages kind of writing itself into this recurring Walter Mitty thing. I danced with it.
I added a lot of words that hadn’t been there. This often happens when I’m working with my own scripts, and unless I have a mandated page length I never know or care how long it will be once drawn. I break down as I go, page by page. I like to play and improvise within the structure I’ve set down. That whole sequence, penciled, was improvised, all the way up to Jesus.
I’d wanted to do something mixing the flag with sex for a while. I love all that flag-meets-sexy-hippies motif you see in a lot of movie posters, record and magazine covers, and ads from the very early ’70s.
The metaphors built as I did it. But it was an intended theme. Originally the idea was that she was merely naive about sex, but it’s turning into something more complex than that. The politics of it are straightforward. I wouldn’t say the satire is that hard, I’d call it farce and others can call it what they want. It’s more just playing with this theme. There are some serious aspects I’ll touch on, like how the ignorance fundamentalists create play into the actions of predators, the somewhat sick underpinnings of some of this purity stuff like the quasi-incestuous vibe it gives father-daughter relations. (Look up the “Purity Balls,” where they are basically on a date.) I’m still working out how I’ll treat that comedically. It is a fun thing to work on. She’s a lot of fun to draw.
DARIUS: Yeah, those father-daughter “purity balls” are so obviously incestuous.
ROBERSON: But Suzy is is me trying to sneak the erotic work back in while making the satire a bit more extreme.
There is, however, an older idea Suzy brewed out of, a notion I had in 2007 to parody the pornographic intense perversity of Jack Chick comics. I mean THE CRUSADERS, not the little tracts; came across CRUSADERS a lot when growing up in all my friends’ houses. But I’d have to get much better with color to get that sleazy, oversaturated oily veneer those things have that make your fingers feel soiled and gross just by touching them. It might be interesting for the look to gradually go from its present glowing bright color to that dimmer wrapping-fish-paper look. Bissette thinks they’re a great example of American horror comics. I believe to the evangelical, these serve the function of porn, something Dan Raeburn touched on in THE IMP, and I’d like to explore that. Those things scare me. I’m actually superstitious about a lot of things and one of those is having them in the house. I believe they’re cursed for nonbelievers and bring bad luck. I believe Jack Chick knows all this black magic stuff because he may practice it–but for Jesus. You know, on the logic of “why should the devil have the best tunes?” I’ve known Christian witches so that’s not impossible, though those were in Chicago, and Catholic. But California fundamentalists like Chick are so much a pure, self-created kind of rootless insane; who knows? A thing that gets repeated in Chick, like in the Broken Cross, is that Jesus and Satan are competing for the young consumer of religion on the criterion of who’s more powerful. Which is accepting the terms of the devil from the start, isn’t it? It seems really made more an issue of who you’re going to sell your soul to, not damnation vs. salvation. Chick comics are so many different and revealing kinds of fucked up. They’re so non-self-aware they almost come across as pathological shrieks for help. But then so does my work, so I can’t judge.
But the Betty thing also leads us into Al Hartley’s friendlier-looking but even creepier Spire Archieverse, and at the moment that and Dan DeCarlo are far more in play as touchstones. And Russ Meyer, especially UP! But mostly for its merry tone in the face of the darkest stuff. Another actress in SUPERVIXENS inspired her typical outfit.
DARIUS: Like the Vladrushka / multiple universes thing, I think the Jack Chick idea is pretty great.
Let’s talk about Uncle Cyrus, the new chapter of which was serialized on Martian Lit. What was the origin of the character? And what do you think it has to say about the state of the comics industry today?
ROBERSON: He came about originally in 1999 in SHIOT CROCK, a zine put together by various people on the snakepit the Comics Journal Message Board, on which I hate to admit I was once insanely active. He started because of a feud I had with two other members because of remarks I’d made about hacks in the wake of the Journal’s issue on the topic. It had a transcript of an old “chalk talk” given by John Buscema in which he was advising young Marvel pencilers on how to get more work done (and make more money, something he kept mentioning again & again) by penciling as fast and with as little detail as possible, leaving most of the work to the inker. I was much more idealistic and less aware then of the conditions of actually doing it as a job, so I was appalled and said so in a lengthy post. A famous comics artist I won’t name (though Uncle Cyrus’ name comes from a punning game played with the fellow’s name) because we made up later and I do respect the guy objected, and very insultingly, and I got even more vicious back. And another fellow, who runs a comics store, trolled me for it as well. Enraged, I commiserated with a friend on the board, John E. Williams, and together we devised Uncle Cyrus to make fun of the guy, and hacky older comics pros in general and their condescending attitude toward young indies. It was snotty and intended to be. I published him later in PLASTIC, two stories in all. Then Williams for his own reasons lost interest in the character and doesn’t write him anymore. But I still had ideas mulling around in my head. So I got his permission to continue Cyrus on my own and that’s how I started this one. Conceivably, Williams could do his own stories with Cyrus with someone else and not have to follow any of my continuity, too, and I’d love to read that. I believe the two people who make a character both have an equal right to use that character. With all the bugfuck changes in mainstream comics it seemed a good time to bring him back.
He just seems a good vehicle to talk about the radical shift that’s gone on in the industry. He’s old, he’s set in his ways, he falls back on crutches of tradition and condescends to anyone who’s done less issues of a comic than himself, certainly all younger pros and indies. He also has Alan Partridge levels of self-regard and delusions of grandeur and popularity. He’s absolutely an example of Bergsonian inflexibility and kind of writes himself. So what if I put him up against something like the massive layoffs that followed the Nu52? Partly because this might open up the character a bit more. Even if he’s a total shit, seeing him fired and then seeing what happens to old freelancers after that–think of the story of Curt Swan–might be a way to find a place where he’s human and relatable and still a horrible asshole. As one example: he thinks he can get unemployment. It might get to a place that’s more melancholic and compassionate, more three dimensional, or at least two and a half. I’m more in a mood now to really write this stuff than I was in my “entertainment” period.
Somewhere down the line I have a non-smut story planned where he tries to improve his figure drawing by hiring a model off Craigslist and it’s Vladrushka needing money.
I have the next chapter already written, and we flash back to the start of his career: his first gig was answering a classified ad for an assistant in LA, and it was for Wally Wood, and the night he killed himself. I hope it will turn out as interesting as it reads as a script. I was toying with the idea of inking that chapter in a style reminiscent of Wood, but that’s beyond my abilities. I’m a writer who added drawing to his writing and writes via drawing, not an artist who added writing. I wish I were Will Elder and could use styles as languages but I’m nowhere near that good. I only think I’m good at a few things–I’m a decent storyteller. I can make talking heads and long scenes in comics work. I can turn a reader on. Sometimes I can make them laugh, and sometimes I can show them something in a way no one else does.
DARIUS: I think those are actually pretty huge things to be able to do. They’re pretty rare skills.
I hope everyone checks out This Sickness #8 and your other work. I have the highest respect for you as an artist, and I know how hard it is to put something like this together. Thanks for doing this interview!
ROBERSON: Thank you, Julian!