Welcome back to this installment of Artist of the Month, for part four of my in-depth interview with Sam Kieth! Those of you who follow Sam’s blog will notice that he apologized for what appeared to be a “never ending interview,” but he also called it “wonderfully comprehensive.” In the case of an interview with the elusive Mr. Kieth, I think we all can all agree that neither are bad things.
In other news, I’ve recently tweaked the contest that was announced in part three of the interview and added lots more prizes. Three lucky folks will have a chance to win some awesome Sam-swag. First place will receive issues #85-100 of Marvel Comics Presents (featuring Sam’s artwork and the famous Wolverine: Blood Hungry story line) and issues #1-5 of Scratch (DC Comics/written and drawn by Sam). Second and third place will each receive a sealed copy of the Arkham Asylum: Madness Hardcover (DC Comics/written and drawn by Sam). I won’t reveal the specifics of the contest until the final portion of the interview, but I will say that all of the entries will be time-sensitive. There will be a select group of individuals that will be given the exact time and date that the contest will go live on ComicAttack.net, but to get details on how to be among the chosen few, you’ll have to send me an empty message with the subject “Sam Contest” to the e-mail at the bottom of this article and await my instructions. Otherwise, it’s a crap shoot.
This week, I coerce Sam to discuss his artwork and how it’s perceived by himself and others. Though it’s something he doesn’t particularly like to talk about, Sam’s insightful answers make it well worth the effort. Also, he shares some exclusive info on his upcoming Trout books, including a previously unannounced Trout project! We begin exactly where we left off last week, with Sam’s thoughts on My inner Bimbo.
[Continued from the last question from part three]
Sam Kieth: It does my heart good when I hear about people who can get an extra layer from the Manet references and the other references in My Inner Bimbo. I’m reluctant to put those kind of references into my work sometimes, because it seems like I’m trying to show off by putting in a Shakespearean or classical reference…or a contemporary art reference. At the same time, I discovered those artists very much like Lo did in the book…when I was teenager and in the library. I just didn’t know what to do when I saw post-modern contemporary art, and I certainly wasn’t seeing that in comics. So, I just threw it away like a dirty thought in my head and put it in the corner and said, OK, that doesn’t belong in comics. It was kind of nice to let some little things float back through because…it’s kind of like with the painting…I don’t like to sit down and discuss it anymore. I just like to do it. Everyone else can sit around and discuss it. Ya know, and they do.
Comic Attack: Yes they do. Your artwork can be perceived as anything from fine art to low brow art. From detailed illustration to simplistic cartoons. Obviously, this wide range of techniques encompasses your overall style. I know you don’t really like to speak about your art, but how do you perceive yourself as an artist?
SK: I don’t like…I really try to avoid that because it’s…I have my own internal critic. So, I feel like gallery owners and art collectors and academic art critics kind of dangerously mirror my own tendency to over-think until my brain is basically bleeding. I just have this little critic that chatters along in my head like the bird atop the buffalo in Broad Minded [A story line in Friends of Maxx # 2 & 3]…won’t shut up. It just yammers and yammers. I just was struck with…(Sam pauses)… Jimmy Page cursed himself. He felt like he would never write anything that held up to Joni Mitchell’s work. Brahms was always beating himself up because he wasn’t Beethoven. John Cage, an avant-garde composer…his teacher, [Arnold] Schoenberg, said, “well, you have no sense of melody and you’re going to run up against a wall.” Well, John Cage just said, “I’ll just beat my head against that wall.” All these people use somebody that came before them to just beat themselves up, and I’m pretty good at just doing that anyway. It’s a default I find myself going into. Especially if they’re women, and I think I need to gain their approval. Then, I turn them into a giant Female Disapproval Monster. It just turns into kind of a no-win thing for the women, because I’m not even talking to who she really is, and it certainly is a huge waste of time for me. So, I could get hung up on critics and contemporary art in the same way. When I look at artists themselves, I’m fine. I remember looking at a book on contemporary art and discovering all the artists and really having my own opinions. Then, I read what the author said. I discovered I didn’t read these opinions until years later and I thought, Oh my god, I have the wrong opinions! This is what people really think of these artists. Then I discovered a book where somebody else completely disagrees with what I had read in the previous book. I thought, well, I guess until I can find out who the ultimate expert is, I’ll just have to have my own opinions about these guys. In the meantime, I better just keep it to myself. It just underscores the fact that…you first have an impression of a piece of art, and then so many artistic people think they’re supposed to be feeling or thinking something while they’re looking at it or that an education helps. I agree. I think an education, the more you can learn about something, it does help. I’ve learned extensively about all types of music. So, I appreciate it more, but I also have my first impressions when I hear it. Which are equally as valid. I don’t trust my own opinion, though. Because everything seems so subjective. Whenever I sit down and try to talk about anyone’s art, a painting or a movie that I see, I believe that without a doubt, that eighty-five percent of my objections are not objective. They’re filtered through a whole bunch of baggage. For example, if I see a movie in my thirties, and I’m convinced it’s a piece of crap. Suddenly, at forty-five, I see the same movie and tears are running down my eyes, and I think, what an idiot! This is a great movie! So, which one is the real informed opinion?
Obviously, it’s based on what I went through and all kinds of prejudices and either clearer vision or perhaps rosier vision if that’s clearer, when I’m older. So, that’s what I mean when I say, when I think of my own opinions, I think they’re kind of irrelevant. The worst thing that could happen is I couldn’t draw, and I’d sit around talking. The best thing that could happen is that I draw and shut up and other people will make of it what they will. No matter what I do, they’ll make something of it, and the real blessing is that once we’re all dead, it’s all ash. Most of it will wind up in a thrift store or in a giant pile of debris at a dump. Even if it doesn’t…even if the world blows up or something, to me it’s all in the making of the thing. While you’re experiencing it, if anybody else looks at it, and they see my art and they are inspired or they just experience it…even if their creative involvement is just looking at it and saying that’s cool. That’s when the art is created. When you look at it and you have a reaction. That’s just as valid as anything I do. So, towards that end…while that sounds a little grandiose or pretentious…I just wanna take the focus off of: I’m over here making art, and anybody else that’s looking at it is over there putting me on a pedestal. A lot of people can make art, and if I happen to make something that people think is very special, then cool. But it takes someone else thinking it’s special before it becomes that. It’s a tree in the forest thing. If there’s only one person left in the world and he hates my art, does my art suck? Well obviously not. It just depends on who’s looking at it. So, I can’t take it personally if people like it or they hate it. (voice deepens and speech quickens) Of course I take it personally when they hate it…’cause I’m fucked up. The point is, it doesn’t matter in the end. I just make things. People turn around and critics line up. They throw roses or they turn around, squat and take a dump. Then other people have reactions to that. If I died before hearing a word about my art, I’d be fine. It wouldn’t even be any of my business. You think of all the artists that have actually died before they even got any acclaim…(pauses)…. I’m sorry. I’m kind of wandering off into this bizarre surreal argument.
CA: No, it’s OK. That’s actually a great answer to my question.
SK: It kind of goes back to what we talked about at the beginning, doesn’t it? I could sit around forever talking about it, but in the end I think that people are curious about what conditions existed for me to create the art. Because they wanna see if maybe they can reproduce those conditions. They’re curious about how I do it. Everyone is curious about the ritual of how people write. You sit around. You set aside for yourself an hour a day. You wait for the idea, or you just start randomly writing to see if you can write your way into a plot. Is the question worth asking [about the process]? Somebody stood up at a comic-con one time and said to a famous author, “Where do you get your ideas from?” He rails on the guy, and says, “Why did you ask that question?!! I’m sick of that question.” And Neil Gaiman responds, “Everyone’s pissed off at that question, but it’s the only question worth asking.” I think he was kind of right. I hate to give Neil credit, but I think that people are curious. I mean, that’s what you do in your interviews. You’ll ask how people work? How do they get their ideas? How do they develop them?
CA: I’m gonna switch gears back to the Trout.
CA: What can you say about the Trout beyond what’s revealed on your blog?
SK: I don’t think I’m keeping anybody in deep suspense, because I really don’t think that most people care right now. It’s kind of like if I told you five issues into the Maxx that, yeah, I’ve got a purple superhero! People would say, “Wow, who doesn’t?” Well, he’s kind of oddly shaped, and he has big feet. They’d say, “Yeah, I figured that after the Marvel Comics Presents: Wolverine stuff. Everybody you draw has big feet.” Well, you’ll just have to wait and see then (laughs). It’s kind of hard to suggest a world. The only thing I can say is…it’s kind of interesting that it’s a full circle for me because so many things started with the Trout…with sketchbooks that I did when I was probably twelve or thirteen…fourteen years old. There was a live-action film that I had wanted to make about a Trout that goes door to door selling Grit, and that became a short that I made with a bunch of people down at ILM over a weekend. That still remains unseen, and that got swallowed up into the Ojo movie. Which became this universe where lots of people see the Trout. It’s almost just more of me deciding to make something. The Maxx had to be a superhero. There was no way I was gonna do a book at Image [Comics] and have it about a normal skinny guy that sat around and thought about his problems…issue after issue. It wouldn’t have flown. It had to be some tough looking guy.
The Trout is a pure indulgence. For example, I’ll build something strange in my garage and it happens to have a toilet seat for no apparent reason. Then I’ll turn around and try to see how many animal or reptilian looking textures or fur, etc. that I can put on it. Afterwards I’ll say, what am I gonna do with this strange sculpture? I know! It’s part of a universe that I’ll create, and when I draw it people say, “Wow, that looks so cool!” Then when they see it in person and they’ll say, “Wow, you built it?!” and I’ll say, no. I built it. Then, I drew it. I did it in reverse. I’m not that dedicated or able to draw something that realistic, but it just came from different crap I built in my garage. Then you get enough of that goofy crap and you think, why would I have all these stupid boxes? You develop a philosophy and a whole world around it. The thing is, that after you do those comics or you put them into whatever form, people come up and they’re looking for a franchise. That’s a whole other step. Then, it’s about your ability to get that out and try to make it look like a franchise. I’m in this tiny little incubator where I can come up with stuff that I enjoy and even if there’s only a small amount of people that see it…even if I were just to release a big book of Trout…Sam’s Big Book of Weird Trout Crap [not a real book] that goes back to the 1800s of this magical universe that nobody has seen, Maxx fans will say, “I can’t stand the Trout! I don’t know what you’re talking about. But some kid will pick it up, thinking it’s totally cool, and he won’t give a crap about the Maxx or Marvel Comics Presents. Then people like you would say, actually it’s part of some giant Kurt Vannegut universe (laughs) where all the characters are interchangeable and you think they’re disconnected, but they’re all interconnected in some synchronous way. It’s like this weird synchronicity of characters elliptically bopping into the same world. It’s almost…(stops himself)…here we go again! I’m getting myself into trouble by talking about it before I do it.
CA: On your blog there’s a still frame from a Trout film. Is that from the one you did with ILM?
SK: Yeah. Although on the blog, I slyly claim that it was made in the 1950s and I think wiser readers probably see past that. Yeah, this is uh….
CA: Like the flyer for the Trout Balm?
SK: Yeah…(Sam digresses)…and then, yet another book that’s planned is this…I’ve already got about sixty pages into this biographical book of everybody that has seen the Trout. It essentially kind of covers…(pauses)…I have all these old photographs of dead relatives, and I explain how each one of them has seen the Trout at one point in history. I can use them because they’re my relatives. So, they’re copyright free, ya know. I wanted to go through, and have various people that have seen the Trout throughout history. They’re informed that he’s sick of being something that was debated about and discussed in the early 1800s & 1900s. Then it moves forward to the 50s & 60s where sightings have dropped down, and there’s a failed attempt at a Trout cartoon show in the 60s. The Trout was one of these four characters that were gonna show up in the cartoon, and all of them were based on someone who had a casual relationship with or who had seen this big Trout. Some people think it’s demonic or angelic. Some think it’s very wise or it was just a dream. It’s kind of like UFOs or Bigfoot, ya know.
CA: A lot of artists and writers will draw from an established mythology, but not Sam Kieth; he creates his own mythology. It’s a great concept!
SK: That is, of course, if I get it out there. The biggest obstacle so far is that it’s an elaborate universe that’s all existing in my own brain. There’s tons of megabytes of files that are just sitting around on my computer and strange objects that are sculpted or lying in my studio.
CA: So, basically this is your life’s work. God forbid if something happens to you, I hope that you have someone to pass this enormous project on to.
SK: Yeah…yeah, I think that uh…there’s actually even plans for that. I’m all ready to die. If anything bad happens, we have the will. We have who things are passed off on to. blah blah blah…we know that they’ll be a dwindling amount of people that are interested in it. So, we’ll have to adjust accordingly. It’s all good.
CA: I’m just really looking forward to this universe that you’ve created and exploring it more, and reading the future volumes that are coming out. I’m really excited about it.
SK: Well, it’s nice to have somebody that’s interested and that cares about it.
CA: So far, it’s your best work to date.
SK: That’s because you’re like me and you remember all these other things. We’ve got to wait for the whole thing to come out. Maybe it won’t be great. Maybe it’ll suck. My biggest thing is that I can’t draw every single one of these books. So, I’m gonna have to use other people. There will be people that say, “It’s not a real Sam Kieth book if you didn’t write it and draw it.” There will be other people that might be thrilled to see someone else’s version of the character, but in the end, since I created this whole thing ten years before Leigh and Vassilis [The artists on Lust Police and Nola. See Part Three] came along, I kinda gotta make sure my imprint is on a lot of it. Because when they leave and a new artist comes on board…well, that’s their version of it, but ultimately, it’s mine. I’m to blame (laughs). It’s like, you could say, the Rolling Stones is made up of a lot of people, but a lot of it is Keith Richards and a lot of the Jethro Tull is Ian Anderson. The good news…and worse…is that whether people like it or not, at least they know to avoid Sam Kieth if they hate it. But if they dig it, then my name on it, and it means that they’re gonna get more than a dose of my usual weirdness.
CA: Your collaborations on Ojo and My Inner Bimbo made it more visually engaging. I found myself dissecting the panels and looking for where your art ends and theirs begins. That’s part of what made that book so awesome.
SK: Yeah, I feel that way from my end, too. I get more out of it, and I think I try to be a better writer because I’m controlling the story by laying it out and by writing it. Then I jump in to draw something. In fact, it’s part of the fun for people, like you say, to figure out where I start and where somebody else picks up. It’s almost kind of a fun game when you’re reading it, to figure out who did what and guesstimate it. The art kind of evolves in a way that’s more fun than just the same guy drawing the same book for thirty issues. It may be fun, but there’s no surprises. You know what you’re gonna get.
CA: Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing more artistic collaborations in upcoming Trout books.
SK: It may seem like it’s just weird for just weird’s sake, but there actually is a reason for each story that I would like to get to. There’s just so many things that nobody has seen. For example, The Lust Police comic originally started as a Broadway play. I finally turned it in to Leigh and said, let’s at least get it out there as a comic. There’s at least two Broadway plays that I’d like to do before I die. One that I’ve finished is the Lust Police, and I’m actually working with somebody right now to do the music for that. We’re doing a real small low-budget version of it. The other one is another story. The original story…(Sam digresses)…these stories are not part of the Trout universe, but they’re things that are spilling out of me, and I just kinda hope in the next ten years that I can get as many of them out as possible. I want to make sure the ones that won’t go away, the ones that I keep thinking about and have lasting value, that somebody’s actually gonna enjoy them. Because when somebody has a lot of work, sometimes not all of it is great. They need people to go through and filter it, and say, “Yeah, these are great, but instead of seven hundred pages, how about five hundred pages?”, or, “How bout these things that really jump out because you don’t necessarily need to show everything in your sketchbook.” A lot of that stuff is doodles and crap, ya know.
CA: Thank God for editors.
SK: Yes. (serious deep tone) Definitely.