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June 5, 2011

Artist of the Month: Sam Kieth Part 1

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Written by: Josh
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Sam Kieth (self portrait from Marvel Age #105)

Nostalgic Sam Kieth fans may ask the question, where’s that guy who drew the really big feet? What’s he been up to? Fans who currently follow his work with a religious fervor (myself included) know that the appropriate question is, what hasn’t he been up to? Between compiling sketches for his IDW sketchbook series (including the eventual release of an ultimate art book containing over 600 pages) and providing the artwork for two mini-series – 30 Days of Night: Night Again for IDW (on shelves now!) and The Demon for DC Comics (Coming Soon!) – Sam has been updating his blog weekly, creating a new series of abstract paintings, and all the while constructing one of the most complex series of graphic novels in comic history. The latter take place in a mystical universe that Sam refers to as the Trout-a-Verse. These books all have one common theme: The Magic Trout. These semi-autobiographical tales are an extension of what Sam began to construct in the later issues of The Maxx (post issue #20), and in Friends of Maxx #1-3. The Trout books are more than a series of stories and artwork. They are a mythology that blurs the line between Sam’s consciousness and man’s reality. Which came first? The Trout or Sam? That’s all part of the experience of reading these books. There are a lot of things in these stories and mythos that are open to interpretation, and I assure you, this is for the best.

Trout Books.

Trout Books: The Big Picture (Click to enlarge. Photo from Sam's Blog.)

Sam’s artistic style has a consistent and beautiful range: the simple expressive sketches of a child, the gentle strokes of a fine artist, and the passionate graffiti of a low-brow art god. His impact on the medium of comic books is profound and often understated within the mainstream comic community. Regardless, his influence is unparalleled to all those who appreciate his work. A testament to his inspiration is the cult following that Sam has attained over the years. He might not have the most fans of a single artist, but there are a network of people that ravenously consume his every offering. All the while, begging for more.

This interview is for loyal Samites, but it’s also for those who want to know more about the man that born unto this world the conundrum known as The Maxx. Even if you’ve never heard of Sam Kieth or your knowledge is limited to The Maxx animated series, this is a great starting point. My interviews are always extremely thorough, but this one is beyond in-depth. In preparation for my conversation with Sam, I re-read a large portion of his work. In addition, I read every printed interview that I had obtained over the years. As well as reviewing his entire blog…word for word. In short, it’s a lengthy interview, and I’ve broken it down into parts. This is part one. Sam was kind enough to provide over two hours of his time over the phone, and an excess of forty e-mails of correspondence. Some of which included an exclusive look at some unseen Sam art. I’ve done my best to maintain the integrity of our conversations, but some editing had to be done. Namely, a couple of inaudible sound bites and some casual banter between the two of us.

Below, Sam Kieth talks about avoiding the lime light, Facebook, and the later issues of The Maxx series. Enjoy!

Comic Attack: Why have you avoided the public eye for so long?

Sam Kieth: It’s all in such a subjective realm. You know, the less I say, the more someone can figure it out for themselves. That’s kind of the reason I was avoiding getting online [and otherwise]. That’s part of the reason I finally did it. I realized that when I finally get something out, I kind of need to beat the drum and let everybody know that it’s out there. Even if I just say, here’s what’s on my drawing board, or… I’m depressed today, and I can’t think of anything but my wife kind of prodded me to. Anything that I throw up…it just gives people a chance to check in. It means that I don’t have to run around and try to alert them that four months later I have a mini-series out. Especially with these art books, where I kind of have to meet people more than halfway. Because, comic books are taking a hit, and art books are taking a bigger hit (laughs). It’s a smaller amount of people that want to look at that stuff. You and I may like it, but ya know…it’s the same old thing…trying to get art…get anything out to a mass audience…people always say, “Do you have a cartoon or a book that you can take a ride off of?” Anyway, you can probably take some of this out (I didn’t).

The Trout

CA: How do you feel about interviews versus letting the art speak for itself?

SK: I have to be careful. I’m not saying that artists don’t have anything to say. I’m sure they do. Don’t you feel when you’re looking at an artist, that you feel a connection by what they’ve written or what they’ve drawn? More so, than reading the interview with them? Sometimes [artists] are very articulate. They are able to express themselves, but it seems like between Twitter and a lot of things [Sam digresses]…you know what? What really strikes me is, have you ever listened to commentaries nowadays? You notice how nobody, and I’m guilty of this too on the one commentary I did for The Maxx DVD. People just lapse into just watching it and having chit chats with other people, and maybe a few inside jokes that only the crew or director or whoever knew about. It’s like people get into this conversational relaxed tone, and most of the people I know that follow my art aren’t interested in a specific piece of information like, what tools you’re using…how you’re doing this…What were you thinking when you were doing it? In some ways, I’m like everybody else and I fall into talking about a bunch of crap that’s not relevant. As I grow older, I’m less and less impressed by my opinions. Everything is kind of disintegrating as the world’s falling apart. I’m falling apart. I’m starting to just enjoy it, but one of the problems I have is trying not to repeat myself so much. I have a standing pact with my wife, when I repeat myself she reminds me that she’s heard that story. So, I’ve got to come up with new stories. It keeps newer neuro-pathways growing. So, I don’t become an old fart that repeats shit.

CA: I got busted on that last night. I was telling my girlfriend (now my fiancée) a story, and she was like, “You’ve told me this story so many times!” I did the exact opposite, though. I said, I’m going to continue to tell you this story. So, get used to it.

Sam Kieth Sketch Books: Volume 2 (IDW)

SK: That’s another thing you can do, is just seek revenge. I’ve done that too. Well, I’m going to repeat it, and I’m going to punish you with it. It’s just one of those things where, when I do talk, here’s a good example in the art books…when you think of an art book, it’s pretty much written by a third person, John Layman. He actually wrote this art book many years ago, and interviewed me and talked to people I knew, and that’s one thing to have third party people talking about me. It’s at least a little more objective, you know…. Interesting. Then in these new art books, the whole dilemma is…should I talk about this art or just actually show the art and shut up…get out of the way…because some people want to hear about that, but usually only if you kind of stay on task and get to the point, don’t, ya know, yammer on. I’m trying to keep it down. There’s about six hundred pages and one-hundred to one-hundred and forty paintings that no one has seen in the last ten years. I have stacks. Actually it probably goes back further than that. So, that’s all stuff that’s not even going to be in the art book that IDW puts out, but will be another one several years after that. There’s only so much art of Sam crap that people can stomach. You have to shrink it down where you only print three copies because there’s only three people that want six hundred pages of my art or are patient enough to plow through that.

CA: You actually could have went a little further with the commentary in the sketchbooks, and it would have held up just as well.

SK: Well, you know what I wanted to do. Don’t put this part in. It’s just between you and me (Sam later sent me an e-mail saying that it was cool to put this in), but I actually…from the Ojo movie, I did about nine or ten hours of music that either friends or I have written or performed…everybody in the world plays an instrument. It’s no big deal. With a garage band you don’t even have to. I had all this music that I’ve thrown together, and I realized I ain’t going to die and just throw this out…or somebody will discover this file and say what’s this, and then…delete. I thought, why don’t I actually put this as background music to me talking about stuff on a vinyl record or just have people download it, and say this is like, not to be pretentious, but like the soundtrack to all these art books. So, when you’re going through and you’re wandering what the hell is up with the Trout, I talk to somebody or say, here’s what’s up with the Trout. But instead of dryly having an hour and a half of me talking, there’s some music in the background, and it makes it not so tedious. We could just do a really limited edition. So, if somebody wanted to download and get that they could. If somebody didn’t, they could say, shut up and let me read the art book. They can do that, too.

CA: Similar to what you did in the Maxx comics with the Dude Japan and Mickey story, where you put the music cues?

Zero Girl: Full Circle #3

SK: Yeah. Kind of. Very much like that. I totally forgot about that, but it’s pretty obvious that I…the interesting thing to me is that, I put together songs before projects…before I ever draw the comic. Like on my iPod, is music that would be in the background of a Zero Girl movie or TV show. Every time I got done, that’s what starts me drawing is listening to music. That music may not even ever make it into a TV show or movie based on that particular project, but pretending there is…hearing the music…some classical music or whatever inspires me to draw. So, I just have this musical backlog of inspiration. Probably a lot of people do. There’s these little cues in your head. You know that thing where you think, if people play music over this visual it would have the same effect it had for me, but then it might not. You just like that song. Somebody else might say, it’s a nice piece of art, but I don’t necessarily care for this song. It’s just an indulgence on my part. This is kind of a weird place in my life because I have so much material that no one has seen, and the whole question is how to get it out there? Part of me wants to sit on it until  comics come back. Then again, comics may not come back. We’ll just stop killing trees and everything will be online. People are gonna look at things on an iPad or an iPhone. Which is fine.

CA: I prefer paper comics, but obviously, that’s just a preference. It may be a nostalgia thing for me because that’s how I discovered the medium.

SK: I’m kind of in between those two points of view, because I do like printed paper, and I do feel less of a wear than when I look at light on a screen. But I also remember looking at the colors that Steve Oliff would send me while we where doing the Maxx, and I’d say to him, Boy this is really vivid. It just never prints this bright. He said, yeah, because light’s coming through the color. Unless you wanna have a light board and light up every page you look at, you’re never gonna get that with a book. At the same time, there’s something restful about looking at printed work. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong way, but if everything is changing…it’s kind of like trains to cars. Cars aren’t evil and trains good. It’s just a way for people to get from A to B.

The Maxx animated series

CA: Do you think we’ll ever see an official Sam Kieth Twitter or Facebook?

SK: (laughs) No. I think you’re gonna be lucky to get something once a week out of me on my cheesy blog. You have to mix your DNA up in Facebook to get on…to see what people are reading. So, I can’t even get on to see what people are reading because I don’t join. I think there’s a page that someone put together out there, but I have no idea what anybody is saying. So, I live in blissful ignorance. I kind of avoid looking myself up or getting caught up in things. Because all it takes is one comment from somebody who may be twelve years old or emotionally twelve years old, and attacking you for whatever reason. I have enough harsh voices in my own head that are battering me around. I think as long as I keep a little pipeline to the world and let people know that I’m still alive… check [the blog] every Tuesday and if I’m there, I’m not dead. If I’m dead in a couple of weeks, it’ll be a brief news blip in a comic magazine, “Did you hear Sam Kieth died? Yeah, that’s too bad. Let’s get on with our lives.”

CA: Speaking of people’s responses to your work, a huge part of reading The Maxx comics were the letters pages. Did the feedback from fans affect the story, and now that you’re not getting that kind of feedback, is it hindering or helping your creative process?

SK: (Deep breath) That is a great question (laughs). I wish I had an equally as eloquent answer. I think unquestionably that it was effecting The Maxx, and I don’t think for the worst. Even when my focus got lost and I started switching stories, but I wouldn’t finish a story. I don’t know if you remember, but there at the end, I would start part one of a story, but I wouldn’t do part three or four. I would just simply jump to part one of a different story.

The Maxx letters column

CA: Oh yes, I remember!

SK: People got kind of aggravated because none of them really had anything to do with The Maxx, and it was clear I wanted to tell a story, but I just shamelessly kept using The Maxx logo. It’s almost like not breaking up with your wife but continuing to bring new girls into the house. It was aggravating everybody. They were like, crap or get off the pot. I think nowadays, I’m more and more isolated. Without the effects of anybody. You hear about artists that exsist in a community. Paris in the twenties…all these impressionists and post impressionists and various schools of art that were hot beds of reacting to each other. Then other people would just go off into the corner and for good or worse, create their own little world. Although, if you don’t get out in the world and have some sort of feedback and conversation, you may as well be talking to yourself.

My Inner Bimbo Graphic Novel (Oni Press)

CA: Your stories seem to be told with a female’s voice. How did you develop this style of writing from a feminine perspective?

SK: What I realized when I was younger was that I was gonna have to develop a masculine voice if I didn’t wanna get beat up in school all the time. I was gonna have to develop the language of talking with other guys and just being a guy in a very caricatured way. In my twenties, I kind of went through the whole thing of being sick of being an introverted artist. I was reading about archetypes and all these things I was always interested in. I went through a phase of lifting weights and hanging out with tough guys that normally wouldn’t give a crap about me, and for four or five years, just gaining their respect, and then saying OK, I’m done with this. I had to make friends with this, for lack of a better word, this introverted part of myself, but I really didn’t have a lot of mileage on my odometer. I needed some pain and suffering. To go through horrible experiences to toughen me up. Luckily, the world was plenty glad to provide it. By twenty-five or so, I thought, well, I got a bunch of crap knocked out of me, and I’m a better person for it.


Click here for part two of this multi-part installment of Artist of the Month for more of my conversation with Sam.

Josh Jones