Does Sammy Harkham really needs any introduction? Both noted cartoonist (from Poor Sailor to Crickets) and famed Kramers Ergot editor, he had nevertheless maintained a low profile these past years, following the release in 2012 of a polarizing KE8 and a personal anthology with an ominous title (Everything Together)... that is, until 2015 came around, and became the stage for something of a re-invention.
Xavier Guilbert : I thought we could kick off with a question that maybe we’ll get back to afterwards. Do you consider yourself more as a comic book author who curates anthologies, or as an anthologist who sometimes makes comics.
Sammy Harkham : Definitely a cartoonist. And I think making the anthologies is part of the process of being a cartoonist. I think if you look at any artist, they start developing very specific systems of the works that sort of enter in their process, in their thinking, in their philosophy towards making work — because making work becomes the center of their life. So the work that they interact with is usually the work when they’re younger, of a particular time, that affected them deeply. It’s where they go back, and go back. Then there are their peers, the people they grew up with, watching them grow and talking a lot with them — so there’s that. When younger cartoonists come up, they start to feel like they don’t understand the context, or they can see the influences — they’re not as charmed by it, you know ? That’s kind of a blanket statement, but there is an element of that.
For me, Kramers Ergot is a way of forever creating excitement and energy for a medium. Because I see that the medium is very much — it’s discouraging how much in America, the medium is… paired with animation, and with illustration. And to me, what’s exciting about comics, are comics. The history of just drawings on paper. A lot of great cartoonists see a connection between animation and comics — I don’t. So I don’t like that association. I don’t feel that there’s anything there to really — to learn from. Not really. I feel that for me, there’s a much more tradition to look at in drawing in fine art and litterature and cinema. I think cinema is useful, just because it’s visual storytelling, and it’s about drama, usually. There’s only a few cartoonists in America — I should say North America — who are interested in literature, in like prose literature. Most comics, even great comics, are still working in the dramatic form of writing.
So, you know, for me I want to feel excited about the medium, and I want to feel excited about — this is a good thing to be doing, and there are great things going on, and Kramers is very much like that. Like a collection of everything that I’m feeling excited about. You know ? And I want Kramers to be something that can run older works, new works — anything sort of in between. Reprints. You know, I wanted it to be able to be this collection that’s very — personal, but something that people can dive into. But for me, it’s very much a part of my process. It helps me get inspired. Yeah.
Xavier Guilbert : Talking about Kramers, how do you explain and look back on the sudden attention that surrounded KE4 ? I get the impression that with KE4, it put it on the map. And then, the subsequent issues established — maybe I wouldn’t say « the brand name ». But seeing the response to the announcement of the forthcoming ninth issue…
Sammy Harkham : It’s interesting. I don’t fully understand it. I think there are a lot of people who were publishing similar work. I don’t think the aesthetic was as defined as it was in Kramers Ergot 4. And I think there’s a power in numbers. I think it’s very overwhelming for a reader, on a book, where they’re kind of like : « I think I’ve seen Matt Brinkman, and I think I’ve seen CF, and I’ve definitely seen Ron Regé Jr. in a Fantagraphics anthology or a Drawn+Quarterly anthology. » But to take them out of that context, and present them in a book that doesn’t have a title in the front, that doesn’t try to editorialize why this work is important, and it just sort of — throws it at you. I think that the power of just all that built a whole that was bigger than the parts, you know ? And I think, without any calculation, it happened to have an aesthetic, a visual aesthetic, that was very… you know, fashionable at that moment. Because we were getting — you know, I self-published the book, I didn’t do any press for the book. I just made it, and was starting going to shows with it. And you know, eventually, it was getting publicized in fashion magazines, culture magazines — so clearly there was something about it that felt like : « comics are cool ». You know, that’s all it is. « Oh, this is a cool thing for people who aren’t interested in comics. » And so, that will definitely ebb and flow depending on where the culture is, the wider culture, and where Kramers is. You know ?
Xavier Guilbert : I also think that Kramers never actually came through as being just comics. Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, and even Top Shelf used to have anthologies, which gave out an highlight on a very specific output. On the other hand, you have the Best American Comics series, which focuses on a more traditional…
Sammy Harkham : There’s different editors.
Xavier Guilbert : Right, but it’s essentially comics — while you mix things together.
Sammy Harkham : It’s true, I don’t even think that I’m doing it, but you’re right. I guess the last issue had Takeshi Murata’s CGI, digital stills…
Xavier Guilbert : Yes, but even the Marc Bell stuff… he does — at least, from a technical point of view — traditional comics, using word balloons and panels. But he also does those big spreads with words and drawings, and while there might be some things happening that are using the narrative techniques of comics, it’s very different.
Sammy Harkham : I think it’s a matter of sensibility. It’s conveying a certain sensibility, a certain feeling, so that all of it feels like comics, even if it’s a collage, or it’s a drawing. It’d become more difficult, actually, thinking about — if I actually think about including stuff that isn’t comics, it becomes a little more difficult because of the Internet now. People have their tumblrs, and they can scroll through so much artwork and — you know, they can curate so much of their own stuff. So that’s become more focused on narrative, you know ? but… yeah, I just try to think of a tone and a feeling and just creating a book that, from page one to page 300, carries a feeling. And it works the same way, hopefully, a stand-alone book by an author would work, where there’s an overall theme or idea, but it’s not easy to pinpoint. I think that’s a much more dynamic book, because it’s not… the intentions aren’t clear. When the intentions aren’t clear, it leaves room for the reader to sort of find an area for them to — to settle in.
Xavier Guilbert : What is the kind of process that goes into that ? You probably have a roster of artists that you know you can talk to and ask for stuff. Do you ask specifically for things, do you have a certain idea of what you want ?
Sammy Harkham : It’s always changing, because the goal is always to make a better and better book. The process — you know, I never finish an issue and I’m satisfied. So it’s always trying to find better ways of doing things. I’ve worked with artists where I tell them I want 24 pages, I want 5 sketchbook pages, two 10-page stories — you know, I want like very specific things. Especially if I see their sketchbooks, or I see their other work while at their house — I get excited, and I go : we should show all of this. With Marc, in Kramers Ergot 4, he had definitely been published, he’d done stuff. But there was so much material, I said it would be great to just have like one page just your characters, another page of drawings, another page of just little comics — because he’s… You know, and I thought this book could be a good place to have all that work.
I’d say, with the one I’m working on now, it’s more just telling people that I’m working on it, and : « If you have material, please send it. » But they’re all sending me comics, so I have to then go back, and write to people and say : « If you have any work — any drawings, any paintings, anything that you’re working on and you want to show me, that I can maybe use, just send it. » Because the more I have to choose from, the better. Like a film editor having more material to work with when cutting a film.
You know, the process is to hopefully let everyone know. « It’s happening, I’m doing it, just send it — whenever it’s ready, just send it. » And that way, I’m not — I can still look at it, I can take the long view and see it as a bigger picture, and I don’t have to spend of my time trying to make sure every single person who said they were going to send me something sends you something. Because that is almost a full-time job.
Xavier Guilbert : And how do you handle the rejections ? Because that’s also…
Sammy Harkham : It is a part of it. I think… I try to treat people the way I would like to be treated. And I go to people who have enough self-confidence to know that if I’m asking them to send me something, it means I like them. That I’m a fan of their work. And if something doesn’t fit, it’s not because the story isn’t good, it’s that it doesn’t fit, you know ? Most cartoonists that I like, I don’t dislike one story and like another. I like all of it, because one story affects all the — the new story affects all the previous ones. And it’s all part of a continuum. So if I don’t think that something fits and I’m not going to use it, it’s only because the book is going a certain way, and a new story is either going to contribute to that, or might take you out of it. So… you know, I hope — I try just to treat them with respect, and tell them it’s not going to work for this one.
Xavier Guilbert : How do you make sure that you, yourself, fit ? Because you’ve been present in most of the Kramers Ergot issues I’ve seen…
Sammy Harkham : I am in all of them. Sometimes, only with a two-pager, or a one-pager. Usually, I do my contribution at the end, because I know what’s missing. So like with the last issue, I wasn’t going to be in it, and I knew what I wanted the book to be, and then we felt like something was lacking, and I was like : « I know what I want », and I was asking people. I’d ask Anders Nilsen, I said : « Hey, look, I need a wordless comic, I need something like this, I need twelve pages. » We talked about it, and he just wasn’t — he didn’t have the time to focus on it. And I was like, okay — I’m gonna have to do it. I don’t love it, but, you know, from a cartooning standpoint, it’s good, because you make work that you wouldn’t have made otherwise. But yeah, it’s hard to edit yourself. I try to send it to who I consider my editors. There’s a couple people I send my work to, who have good taste and good sensibility, and who can tell me like « this joke isn’t working », or « this is a little bit confusing », you know ? And I definitely need that, I want that.
Xavier Guilbert : I’d like to spend a little time on issue #7 — especially since considering what we’ve been discussing…
Sammy Harkham : Sure. I just looked at it, yesterday. For the first time in — five years ?
Xavier Guilbert : Where did that idea of doing a huge book come from, initially ?
Sammy Harkham : So — there’s a couple things. The reason why it was a good idea was that we had — we had done the last couple in a row, and I was just thinking : « well, we’re going to do this again »… you don’t want to keep using the same roster of people. And I went to — there was a show that traveled around the museums in America, called « Masters of American Cartooning », and in that show, looking at all those originals, large pages, I thought : « wow, it’s so nice to be able to look at something, and also read it. » I thought « it’s an interesting size », and then I saw Peter Maresca — he’s a publisher, Sunday Press Books. He did these Little Nemo books, and Gasoline Alley. I’m not sure if Gasoline Alley was before, or after… But he was starting to do these large format books, and I thought — well, you know that’s interesting, because that’s the original page size that cartoonists were working with. And I thought : if you take artists now, and you have them work at that size, they all look new. So even if I only worked with the exact same artists I worked with in the past, it would feel like you’ve never seen them before. You’re familiar, but it’s a whole different experience. So that was — I was, oh, this could be something. And then I could ask people who everyone is familiar with, but I don’t normally ask. People like Jaime Hernandez, you know, or Dan Clowes. People who — there’s no reason for them to contribute to an anthology necessarily, but this was a very particular project. I thought : oh, that could be a way of getting a lot more interesting people on board, so that was the spark for that.
Xavier Guilbert : Are you satisfied with the way they took possession of this special size ?
Sammy Harkham : I think — I think I could have done a better job as editor. I think they all did as good as they could have, but — you know, the problem in comics, I don’t know if it’s a problem in Europe as well, but in America, we have a tradition of no editorial interference in alternative comics, since Crumb. Because I think it’s Crumb who said : this is what I do, take it or leave it, if you have a problem, you know — go jump in the lake. So that tradition of just « the artist knows what he’s doing, leave him alone », has yielded now into a period where comics are taken somewhat seriously as literature, but yet we don’t have editors. And we don’t have someone to bounce off of, or to make our ideas better, the same way writers do. Or the way even painters who work with galleries, have a gallerist who’s telling them, you know, we’re going to focus here, or push this away, or whatever. So — I think I could have done a better job, in guiding stuff. When I was looking at the book yesterday, I thought — you know, I’d be like : wow, this is good, this is good, and then I’d be like aww, we could have laid this out better, we could have made him redo a title, and… you know, just push it. Because I think when you’re working at that size, you have a book like that, you want it all to really work. Because it’s a — we’re all standing on each other’s shoulders. We’re relying on each other for the whole book to work.
Xavier Guilbert : From a reader’s point of view, it’s a book that is massive, and some might say expensive. But I had a lot of trouble reading it, because basically, you have to put it down on the bed, and you read it there, and it brings you back to when you were a kid.
Sammy Harkham : I think it was an experiment. You do it, and you’re like : that will be a fun thing to do. I wish I could redo it, but I don’t think I will.
Xavier Guilbert : What I mean, is that it’s big, but — did it have to be that big ? Some pieces, like with Chris Ware’s, where the kid in the middle of the page is drawn in its actual size…
Sammy Harkham : Great use of the page.
Xavier Guilbert : There’s also Tom Gauld and Ruppert & Mulot who were definitely using the size of the page…
Sammy Harkham : Yes. Well, my theory at the time was that — because I think looking at the Little Nemo book and some other stuff of that size, I was : wow, everything take on a whole new level of quality. So that was the thinking, that even if something can work at 8.5 x 11 — just to see it that large, you might look at it in a new way. But I think now, if I was editing that book, I would be much more on top of it and really printing out each one, staring at it and going : « ptt, you’re out, you’re in, let’s fix this panel, let’s do this… » Kim Deitch also did an amazing strip, with the bottle caps, all around. And you know, there’s — it’s a constant learning process.
Xavier Guilbert : Are you saying that now, with the ninth issue, you’re much more editorial and proactive about the works ?
Sammy Harkham : Yes, yes. I’ve had people change their stories, I’ve given notes on a lot of stories. Some minor, some major.
Xavier Guilbert : How did they react to that ?
Sammy Harkham : They love it.
Xavier Guilbert : So maybe that was some kind limitation that you…
Sammy Harkham : … that was unnecessary. I think so. But you’ve got to realize, when I did Kramers #4, I was 22. So when you’re 22, you don’t feel comfortable to say : « I want this, do this, push this… » But I realize that for me, when I work with an editor, on a project — I ask them : what are you thinking ? you want me to do this cover, what is the best — what do you want ? lots of drawings, something crazy, something quiet ? I like working within people’s expectations, and delivering on those terms. So once I realized that, I thought I should extend that as well. And you know, I don’t think — like someone like Kim Deitch, he’s a master of comics, he sent me a story, it didn’t need anything. But I don’t know — luckily, I don’t need to ask him. Because he may not want to take criticism. You know what I mean ? Luckily, there was no issue with him, but — with some artists, you know their personalities a little bit, and you’ve got to know how to deal. But once a story is accepted, it’s pretty much accepted. At this point I feel pretty comfortable to tell any artist — if there’s just one issue, if there’s this one thing that’s not working, I feel pretty confident to be able to bring it up. And I think they like it. Yeah.
Xavier Guilbert : One last thing about #7 — I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but around the time it got released, somebody on the Internet had done a « normal-sized », or at least a « smaller-sized » version of it. I don’t know exactly if it was through photocopies or actually redrawing the whole thing, but — how do you feel about that ?
Sammy Harkham : I thought it was great. I don’t even know if they ever made it. I think they made a Kramers #7 that was little, right ?
Xavier Guilbert : Yes, that’s the one I’m talking about.
Sammy Harkham : I don’t know, it might have been — someone spoke to the guy who made it and he said it was just a conceptual joke. I don’t think they ever made it. But I thought that was great. I think once — if you could make something that can have a life of its own, with people, and it can sort of inspire other things, with people commenting on it, that’s great.
Xavier Guilbert : You said that with this residency, you’re getting exposed to a lot of people coming from Europe. But you’ve already included in Kramers Ergot people like Tom Gauld who’s British, Ruppert & Mulot…
Sammy Harkham : Always. I always try to keep track, so I’m always — I’ve always, as much as I can, paid attention to what people are doing.
Xavier Guilbert : In the sixth issue, there was the Norakuro story, by Tagawa Suihô.
Sammy Harkham : And Helge [Reumann] and Xavier [Robel] did the cover, and they had a whole section. I’ve worked with Tobias Schalken…
Xavier Guilbert : I’m curious about Norakuro, because as far as I know, that’s the only time you’ve included works by a dead author, with those color pages, which are absolutely gorgeous. But that was also the first time that anybody in the West was exposed that kind of work — as it only exists in Japanese.
Sammy Harkham : The Japanese are embarrassed about it, because it’s fascist. So it’s hard for that stuff — I don’t even know how much of it is in print, even in Japan.
Xavier Guilbert : I have an edition of it, a bunkô version from, probably, the early 1990s. And you can still find the original editions from the 1940s quite easily, in stores like Mandarake.
Sammy Harkham : Oh, okay. Well, it’s interesting, because that’s not really available in the West. In France, has it been translated ?
Xavier Guilbert : No, I know that Thierry Groensteen has expressed an interest in it. But so far, I haven’t seen anything.
Sammy Harkham : Yeah. I mean, I think it’s beautiful. I think they’re just great comics. It’s beautiful the way they are printed, the color, the characters, the stories — I mean, they’re powerful. They’re really powerful. I love them.
Xavier Guilbert : With the Internet, there’s been a lot of those prewar mangas emerge. Would that been the kind of thing you’d be looking forward to be doing again, or ?
Sammy Harkham : I mean, I’m always looking at stuff. I’m seeing stuff from Japan, I like a lot of the older comics, but with Kramers, I realize there’s a certain thing that I go for. I like work that regardless of the decade that it’s made in, feels very relevant today. So it fits in aesthetically with everything else. So — with the stuff we’ve reprinted in the past, because we’ve also did Marc Smeets. So when we reprint something, it’s important to me that for the person flipping through, it all feels cohesive, you know ? Sometimes, there’s works that I like, that I’m like — argh, I don’t think that Kramers is the right place for this. Maybe I can help get it published as its own book, or do something with it. But for Kramers, it has to hit this sort of sweet spot of a very particular kind of comic.
Xavier Guilbert : As a reader, I turn to Kramers to be surprised. Norakuro was one such surprise.
Sammy Harkham : It fit in really well. You know, even having a page of text, it all made sense. Paul Gravett did it — it all worked, it somehow worked. But with those things, it’s case by case, I think, you’ve just got to find the material that really fits in with modern cartoonists and the new stuff and whatever.
Xavier Guilbert : You’re working on the ninth issue of Kramers Ergot — what triggered the need, the desire to get back to that ?
Sammy Harkham : It’s the same thing, it’s going — I think I can make a good book. I think, it there were a lot of good anthologies that were doing the job for me, I wouldn’t do it. There aren’t. The sort of thing that I’m looking for, it doesn’t exist, so I wanna see it, and I see that there’s a lot of very talented people, there’s a lot of good work. So I’m like : I want to just see this stuff presented in a way that feels exciting, you know ? If RAW still existed, maybe I wouldn’t need to do it. If Mould Map came out more regularly, or Volcan came out more regularly… you know ? Then maybe I wouldn’t feel the need. But it definitely comes out of that. That’s the only reason. And so, if I finish #9 — I know what’s going to happen, I already know. The book’s going to be done, I’m going to be exhausted, I’m not going to want to look at it, I won’t look at it, I won’t want to talk about it (laugh). I won’t want to deal with it. You know ? And then, a couple of years go by, and then I’m discovering this thing over here, and this thing over there, and I’m like : « Oh, we should just really reprint an issue of Dirty Plotte, in the middle — issue #6. Let’s just do it, with Dirty Plotte, in the middle. » And then — you know, there’ll be a story, by Hervé Tanquerelle, from France, there’s one story in Comics 2000. Who’s seen this ? It’s been so long… someone needs to reprint this again. So then you go : « okay, I’ve got this thing I want to do, and then there’s the Julie [Doucet] thing where maybe she’ll let me do a whole issue of Dirty Plotte and we’ll reprint it, and then, there’s this young cartoonist in France, and this minicomics guy in Minnesota… » And then you go : « okay, it’s starting, there’s definitely something », and then you just slowly — and then you’re in it. You’re just in it until the next one, and you hope it goes well and you hope it’s a good book. They are hard to do. They’re hard books to do. Because it’s very — I think most anthologies are made by publishers, they have a lot of projects, so they’re doing a lot of things and the anthologies are like — « we’ll throw it there ». But the really great anthologies, you have editors who are just so — Chris Oliveiros, when he started the Drawn & Quarterly anthology, it’s a great anthology, because he’s just putting everything into it. He’s not thinking about doing solo books. With Art [Spiegelmann] and Françoise [Mouly], it’s the same thing. That was their whole focus. They had day jobs and other things, but they were really focused. So it does take a lot out of you, but I’ll keep doing it I think, as long as there’s a reason to make it. If I’m not making it, then I’m — it means things are doing good in comics, and someone else has taken the burden off of me.
Xavier Guilbert : So it builds up progressively, and then the need becomes overwhelming ?
Sammy Harkham : Oh yeah. Luckily, like a lot of great manga, Breakdown Press has started doing some stuff, and Fantagraphics has done some stuff, and Drawn and Quarterly has done some stuff. So I’m — okay. Tsuge — impossible, right ? We all know, like Tsuge, to get him in English, is like impossible.
Xavier Guilbert : If that can be of any kind of comfort, it’s impossible in French too.
Sammy Harkham : So there you go !
Xavier Guilbert : He is a very complex character.
Sammy Harkham : Right. But if someone said to me : « I’ve got an in to Tsuge, he wants to be in Kramers Ergot #10″, then I would definitely be : « okay, we’re making an issue. » It will be a simple issue, you know ? You just go with the things that are — that you feel very passionate about. And I think becoming a stronger editor and really pushing people harder and harder, I think that might — I’m hoping #9 is good. If #9 is good from start to end, we’ll all feel like we’re in a whole new area. Because I do want to — I have an idea to go for #10. I want to go a little bit bigger, but not so thick — but not as big as 16 x 21, just a nice larger size. I think — I’m starting to think about — because you want to have opportunities. You want to give cartoonists opportunities, you want to say : « here’s this space, and you can do anything you want within this space. » But I also — I think what you’re pushing against is other artists’ ambitions. And you want them to be better, you want them to be — you want them to be what you think they can be. For a lot of the younger cartoonists, and a lot of my peers, I’m like : « don’t throw just something at me and I’m going to publish it. » You have to really break yourself a little bit. But it’s worth it. So we’ll see.
Xavier Guilbert : How do you react to criticism regarding Kramers ?
Sammy Harkham : Which criticism ? You know, each thing gets a different sort of bitch and moan.
Xavier Guilbert : Basically, it’s about the eighth issue, which wasn’t received as…
Sammy Harkham : The thing is that I’ve never — people talk about Kramers and will say : « oh, it’s such a pivotal thing, » but at the time I never felt that. I am not as tapped in into the Internet as other people, so I see a little bit on at Twitter, I see a little bit on Instagram, but I’m not on Facebook, and I think there are a lot of message boards that are kind of hidden away. So I don’t know, I see one or two reviews. The last issue is very particular, and I think it does what all the previous issues of Kramers have done, which is… it’s definitely a comment of some kind — eight issues, always a comment on current comic culture. Even though the books are widely read outside of the comic community, because I’m part of that community, the work is definitely always a reaction. And so there’s always a negative response, since issue #4, to Kramers. Every time. With this, you know — people didn’t like, you know, the Penthouse comic, and they didn’t like Ian Svenonius, but I like both of those things. I look at the book, and I think — it probably needs one or two more stories that are really, really strong. I think it could definitely be better. But all the things that people don’t like, I don’t have a problem with. I think it’s very conceptual, this issue. And I think, for anyone who is reading it closely, I think they can pick up a lot of like, interesting sort of ideas, that Svenonius talks about, that play out at the end, with the Wicked Wanda stuff, you know ? And it is a very angry book. When I made that book, I was very, like… I was upset about a lot of things. So I wanted to make a book that kind of reflected that. The reader can — I don’t think that if you like one book, you have to like the next one. I don’t think if you like one story that I draw, you have to like the next story. I don’t believe in being reverent towards anything. You shouldn’t go : « hey, it’s Kramers ! it’s great ! » You don’t have to be like that at all. I totally respect the reader to be like : « this, I don’t want », you know ? As long as enough people buy it — and they all bought it. So that’s all that matters : that the book sells, and it’s not a disaster, and the publisher made money — and you know, every issue of Kramers has done well, so…
Xavier Guilbert : It also fits with what you said earlier, about not liking a specific story but focusing on the work as a whole, with each new addition kind of changing the perspective on the whole…
Sammy Harkham : It’s an ongoing conversation.
Xavier Guilbert : But you might not agree with all of it…
Sammy Harkham : At 100 %. I mean, there’s a lot of comic authors whom I’ve now been reading for twenty years, and some of these guys are going off in very odd directions. But you know, I’m going to go there with them. I may not necessarily love it, but I’m going to go there with them. With an anthology, you know, as an editor, I don’t feel like it’s — even though my name is listed in the book, and I’m the guy who’s going to do the interviews for the book, I don’t feel like it’s « me, me, me, me, me », in the same way it would be if it was a graphic novel of my own.
Xavier Guilbert : Yet, the way you talk about it, there’s obviously a lot of you in the books. You were just talking about #8 being an angry book, and you being upset about a lot of things. So there’s definitely a connection.
Sammy Harkham : Sure. But what I mean is that I guess, when I think of the reader, in the bookstore, I don’t think they necessarily have to think of it as « a new Sammy Harkham book ». I think maybe they go « oh, I know Kramers » or maybe they don’t, they flip through it, if it looks good, they buy it, then they go home and they like it or they don’t. I think it was very polarizing. I think I’ve got — it’s strange, because in the last six months, people have been writing to me about #8. And I can tell that when the book came out, it was a little — there was initial excitement, and then I didn’t hear about anything. So that tells me — that’s the negative response, because people don’t want to write about it, they don’t wanna talk about it too much, or they are always kind of stuck on one or two things and that tells you a lot. But it’s interesting. It seems like the book — the book has definitely found its readers, the people who responded to it.
Xavier Guilbert : Don’t you think that at some point, there might have been too much hype around it ? In a way, the special size of issue #7 played into that. Already at that time, Kramers was pretty much a household name, but the size of issue #7 made it even more special, and what are they going to come up with next ?
Sammy Harkham : Oh, yeah, interesting. You see, I didn’t even think in those terms at all. I really didn’t. Because I think it’s a losing battle, to always go — you know what I mean ? But you’re not the only one, I don’t think it’s unusual, I think that’s common. And if I wasn’t the editor, that’s how I would also think, I would think : « well, they did this, and what comes next in relation to that ? » But as the maker of the book, I didn’t think in those terms.
Xavier Guilbert : Having this conversation today, the two books have been out. But if you look back on it, maybe it’s not an objective thing, but because of its size, issue #7 was unique just because of that. So in a way, even if you were kind of ambivalent about the contents, it was an incredible book.
Sammy Harkham : And where do you go from there ?
Xavier Guilbert : Exactly. And issue #8 didn’t have that going for it, and maybe a lot of people were expecting, following the hype machine…
Sammy Harkham : The book is quiet, and it’s small… Maybe for the reader, the lesson is that there’s no set rules. Even in the sense of each one has to wow you. Maybe you could do an issue — I mean, my initial inspiration for #8, and I couldn’t do it (the artists didn’t want to do it) I wanted that size [paperback format], four stories. That’s it. Four stories, each one 24 to 32 pages, and a book, that would feel like — like a book of literature. Just big chucks of solid material. And I could not get the work. I couldn’t get that commitment, and I understand that. I think that everyone is working either on a graphic novel, and they might give you a chapter, but it’s not going to work necessarily, and then the graphic novel has to be far away enough from the release of the book, so that the book can have a life before the graphic novel comes out ; or you know, someone thinks « oh, I can make this, and I can print it as a minicomic and sell it and make more money, » which is understandable. But yeah, looking at the context of what Kramers was going towards, #8 maybe feels like someone has gone into rehab, and now they’re reentering society slowly (laugh). I don’t know, I don’t know. To me, the exciting things about #8 are much more subtle. It’s having a book and you open it, and the end papers are white. And then you turn the next page, and it says : « other books by PictureBox », and there’s like a hundred titles. And then you turn the page, and there’s just the title, in type. There’s nothing wild or exciting, you know ? To me, this is — I think, if you’re engaging with it, maybe it is exciting. If you’re engaging on that level. But if you just look at #7 and then you go to #8, you’re like : « who did this ? what is he thinking ? » Maybe it stimulates something.
Xavier Guilbert : I mean, you go to anthologies to discover new stuff. Anthologies are bound to be strange books, where you can be surprised or disgusted or bored.
Sammy Harkham : It is weird. I would love to get one review, where someone is like : « I liked every story in the book. » It never happens, you know ? I totally get that. But maybe there’s one person in the world with the same sensibility as me (laugh), and they like it all the way from start to finish.
Xavier Guilbert : Since it’s a conversation, it might also be a conversation with the readers.
Sammy Harkham : Yeah, a book like that — you’ve got to understand that in America, where comics are now being co-opted by the mainstream publishing industry for the last fifteen years. And now the young adult novel in comics form is a very popular thing — you have cartoonists now aspiring to that. I mean, you see all these great cartoonists who can make a living drawing comics. So then you think : « what if we make a book on those terms ? what does that look like ? » And Kramers #8 is very much going like — what do comics look like if we embrace it ? Instead of fighting against a literary sort of sensibility and context, let’s go towards an art book, a literary book, and see how comics fit in that mold. And I think I tried to make a book, that was going like — « forget it ». Everything we’ve been doing in comics, just forget it. Let’s start fresh, and let’s think of comics in the context of literature and music and graphic design. And so that’s where that book sort of goes. The sad thing is because I made it, I don’t know — I don’t know if it works. You know what I mean ? I know the content works, but I don’t know, let’s say, if the cover works. I don’t know if that’s a great cover. I don’t know — I know it is on its own, but in the context of comics… There’s still a lot of questions. You just intuitively try and go with it. And go with it and learn from it, and I learned a lot from it.
Xavier Guilbert : Since we’ve covered your work on anthologies, I wanted to move to your other projects. Everything together came out not so long ago, when was it ?
Sammy Harkham : It’ll be three years in a month. God, time just moves so fast, I can’t keep up.
Xavier Guilbert : How different or similar was it for you to work on that kind of book, compared to an anthology ?
Sammy Harkham : Ideally, I would have worked with an editor, who would have really just taken care of it for me, but with PictureBox and Dan Nadel — for some reason, it just became like : « okay, I’ll do it, and I’ll throw it at you, and… » There wasn’t that much material in the book, it’s not like everything I’ve ever done, so… I didn’t even read it. I was just like : « I think this trajectory works, » and I probably spent the most time just thinking about the package — the covers, the kind of paper, the feel of it. And in some ways, I realize that I was only interested in doing a collection, thinking of it as a — because I wasn’t, I’m not enamored by my own work. I’m like — this is over years of trying to learn how to make comics. Once I realized that it didn’t have to be a pretentious collection, like a permanent document — you know, you can make something that feels like a manga magazine. Okay, there’s a way to do this, so that’s why it’s like — it’s comics. The whole thing hopefully feels like a big comic book, you know ?
Xavier Guilbert : There’s something interesting, because I checked the French edition, which is not a straight translation.
Sammy Harkham : It’s different.
Xavier Guilbert : The order is different, there are stories in the French edition that are not in Everything together, and vice versa. How did it go ?
Sammy Harkham : You know, I’m such a fan of Cornélius, that I was very, very happy to trust them and their instincts for the book. Because they understand the French reader, they understand the French market, they understand how people are going to look at the work. And I love their books : I love how they’re designed, I love the color, because I know they recolor all the covers. I was honored just to be a part of that tradition. I didn’t feel like this book needs to be formatted in the same way. Because it’s really just about the content, and how to package it. So I was very confortable.
Xavier Guilbert : So you didn’t check anything ?
Sammy Harkham : The only think I asked them was why they didn’t include the Napoleon comic. Because I thought that was like the best thing in the book (laugh). It’s a good one-pager, solid. I would assume it would be collected. But they said : « oh no, we’ll do it for the next one », or whatever. But beyond that, it was great. I thought the color they did was really nice. They showed me some things, we talked a little bit. You know, they would just ask me if I was okay with stuff, and make sure I was confortable. But I didn’t engage — I was willing to just defer to them and trust them, because I feel like they seem to know what they are doing.
Xavier Guilbert : Well, Jean-Louis has a printer’s background, so he definitely knows how things will enventually look on the page.
Sammy Harkham : Yeah, if anything, it becomes a thing where you’re like : « how can I help them ? » I appreciate being published in French by such a great publisher, and it’s like — I know not many people in France know my work, so I appreciate them doing the book, and I hope it does okay. I just hope it doesn’t do too badly for them. And it’s a hopefully good relationship.
Xavier Guilbert : Talking about your work, one thing that stuck me, I have the impression you are very conscious of the way you use the space on the page — and that brings us back to the discussion we had about the large pages of Kramers #7. It’s kind of schizophrenic in a way, because you’ve got your 2×2 grid, that you use in Poor Sailor or in Somersaulting. For me, there’s a very contemplative aspect to it, there’s a lot of wordless panels, and the storytelling takes its time moving forward. And then, you’ve got the pieces that reminds me a lot of Seth’s work on his little books like Wimbledon Green and its sequel, where there’s a lot of things crammed on the page in tiny panels. The Napoleon strip being one such example. How do you balance those two approaches ?
Sammy Harkham : Well, I think it’s like you go scene by scene. And you don’t want to fall into any traps like « this is how I do it, everything’s a grid, always six panels, that’s what I do, I’m sticking with that for the rest of my life. » After I did Poor Sailor, the response — I did Poor Sailor when I was 22 or 21, when I first finished it. You know, the response to that story was so good, I mean, if I was thinking of a career, I could have just done that forever. I would just have done one of those a year, that would come out as a little book, and it could have been my life, just doing these little stories that fit in that mold. But I think it’s important to look at every sequence or scene and go : « what is the best way of approaching it ? » And sometimes the best way is to give it over the shoulder. To give it to the reader like this is just tossed off. At other times, to make something really important. And then it begins — the music analogy is useful to me, because you get used to playing with certain musicians in a certain way, you, know : it’s a guitar, a bass and the drums, and you just do that. Those three things, those three elements. But then when you play with the page, you’re introducing all these other instruments in a way, if it’s music. You’re really starting to open up and expand, and then you just hope you’re opening up your vocabulary. Right now, I’m working on a story that plays with the scale a lot. So depending on the sequence, there can be 25 panels on the page, or there can be 2 — all next to each other. Just to keep that rhythm shifting. It’s much more ambitious, it’s a lot more — you’re playing with scale a lot more.
Xavier Guilbert : And it forms a cohesive story ? Because that’s something that’s present in Everything together, when you read it you’ve got the sense of a shifting rhythm, going from things that are very dense, and then pages sparsely populated, and there’s a couple of very quick strips…
Sammy Harkham : Well, the goal — I thought it would be interesting to make a novel that did all of that, within one story. So you could have sequences where it’s really just : moment — moment — moment, they’re all given equal weight, and it’s for the reader to sort of parse out the emotion from that. And then play with that, and have things go a little faster and slower. I mean, in many ways it’s not unique to me. If you think about Chris Ware, he’s the most obvious example, how he plays with scale a lot depending on the page. Sometimes there’ll be ten or twenty pages where it’s all in a grid and then he opens it up. But Seth is another one. I mean, it’s one of those things where it’s all — it has nothing to do with formalism, and it has all to do with content. Storytelling, what the story needs.
Xavier Guilbert : You were saying you did not enjoy the process…
Sammy Harkham : I am now, I’d say. But it all comes out of content. It’s like, I’m not enamored with my own artwork. So — if I draw a house, it doesn’t mean anything to me, if it’s just a house. I don’t see the beauty in the drawing when it’s my own drawing. Other people’s artwork, I can. But with my own artwork, it has to be the drawing of a particular house, of a particular person. What’s the context ? What’s the time of day ? What’s happening ? All these things are what inform the artwork. And I do like making comics a lot. I do enjoy it, but it was a looong process of getting to that place. My trajectory has always been trying to do more than I have the skills for, and fighting. It’s always about — what is it they say ? The reach exceeds your grasp, you know ? And then at a certain point, my reach and my grasp sort of merged, where I found the drawing style that I was comfortable with, that I could do, you know ? And it was a good way to tell the stories.
Xavier Guilbert : Still, your output remains very limited. Crickets #4 came out quite a while after the previous issue…
Sammy Harkham : I was building — because I didn’t think I was going to do it. I thought I was just gonna do — I started a story in Crickets #3, and I liked it a lot, and I thought : « oh, this might be a book. » So I kept working on it, and I thought : « I’m not gonna serialize it, because I don’t want to talk about it. » I amassed a large amount of pages — I don’t work in order, so I was doing all these scenes and building all this material, and then I realized — you know what ? It might be good, actually, to serialize this, so that I can get a little bit of money, to keep working. And I actually do really like the format. I like the comic book format. Covers, end papers…
Xavier Guilbert : And it’s a 2×2 grid, is it ?
Sammy Harkham : It’s four tiers. It’s usually my standard, it’s what I work with, in Crickets #3 and #4. But I didn’t publish #4 as soon as I could have. I just kept working and working and working. So this year, we’re going to have Crickets #4, after four years. Crickets #4 is gonna come out, and Crickets #5 is going to come out by the end of the year. So this year, there’s going to be a lot of material, and then maybe hopefully one issue a year, until it’s done. But yeah, I mean — it’s just the way it goes. I don’t have an explanation. It’s just — there’s a lot of reasons, you know, for how all that stuff happens.
Xavier Guilbert : How do you balance your work as an editor and your work as an artist ? I’m thinking of Jean-Christophe Menu whose output dwindle to close to nothing when he was in charge of L’Association…
Sammy Harkham : What I’ve learned is that trying to balance all these things, is that — editing the anthology did take all my time. It took all my time. And then, at a certain point, you realize what you need, and I definitely needed to draw comics, my own comics, to feel fulfilled. Then it becomes a question of, okay, I know now, I’ve lived long enough to know that I need comics, my own comics, to be part of my daily life. And then, how does Kramers fit into that ? If I couldn’t fit Kramers in, I would cut out the anthology. So now, that’s also part of how I’m working on Kramers, is so that I can just make my work a continual, daily thing instead of — working for four months, not working for six months. Because of all the other work I have to do to make a living or whatever. I want comics — I don’t want comics to be something that I work at it, and I get good at it, and I get into a rhythm with it, and I feel comfortable with it, and then stop. And then, six months past, and then trying to get back into it. It’s got to be — for my mental health, I need it to be a continual, everyday part of my routine. And that’s what it’s been for… a year and a half. For the first time in my life, really, it’s been this last year and a half I’ve been really committed to making it like — I think about my comic, the story I’m working on, all day, every day, it’s my entire focus. And hopefully, when the work comes out, it works, you know ? It’s all for something.
Xavier Guilbert : You’ve mentioned that during Kramers #8, you were upset with a lot of things. Would you say that this kind of realization, and maybe finding this kind of comfort zone that you’re talking about, is that something that helped settle down all the things that got you angry at the time ?
Sammy Harkham : Somewhat, because… what you realize at a certain point, is that you can’t control the world, you can’t control the industry, you can’t control the marketplace or whatever. And you have to just hone in on what you do, and make your statement and your contribution through your own work. And by just focusing on that, and it’s going like you’ve got to grow up at a certain point. You can’t get angry about everything, you know ? I’m not Gary Groth, I don’t have a magazine where I can rally and write editorials, or like JC Menu who writes long shit-talking essays about why everything is terrible (laugh). It’s not worth it. The best thing to do is, put money where your mouth is, and make the work that you want to read, and done in a way that is the way you want to see things. So yeah, they are probably connected. They are probably very much connected. I think that the time I’m most unhappy is when I’m not working everyday on comics, but I’m still thinking about comics.
Xavier Guilbert : The PFC residency is reaching its end — how was it for you ?
Sammy Harkham : It was amazing. It was really interesting, because I don’t — I don’t know if this is unique, to me or to some cartoonists, but I’m not somebody who draws for pleasure. And I realized, while I was here, I realized that usually drawing is like writing, you know ? I don’t think a writer would sit down and would just start banging around. There’s usually some sort of focus to get them there, and then they sort of find their way. And so with this, it was like — just to draw, or to work on comics, purely taken out of a context of a larger project, or something that’s done in a singular way, was really interesting in that it was a great way to — you start flexing certain creative muscles, that are there, but you don’t put as much emphasis on. So I started out feeling like : « oh, my strengths are really gonna be storytelling, in collaborating we’ll see where the stories are, and where I can help push them. » Because I’m confident in my skills as an artist, but I’m not somebody who just takes a piece of paper and makes a beautiful drawing. And that room is full of amazing artists, you know. By the end of it, we were just signing the bookplates, and for each bookplate, I did a different drawing completely. It’s like that muscle — I’ve just been able to start with a line and make something, and just embrace it and just have fun with it — was totally… has been flexed. And you start realizing that it’s approachable. Sometimes you work, and you’re stressing out about a character, about a situation, about a scene, and here it’s like : « okay, you’ve got four minutes, pass it along. » And you realize very quickly you can figure out composition, the joke, or a story, or a theme, and then you move on and you get another one… You know, sometimes I’d be struck by how much cartooning has been done over the course of a day. There’s no real excuse, like when you’re sitting around in your studio and nothing is happening.
Xavier Guilbert : Did you feel there was some kind of ramping up ?
Sammy Harkham : It was okay. It was okay — weirdly enough, and I don’t do jam drawings, and I don’t get together with other cartoonists to draw, but I felt very comfortable. From the beginning it was totally enjoyable. I don’t think there was any exercise where I felt like : « I shouldn’t be here, I’ve gotta leave. » It was all good.
Xavier Guilbert : But getting back to what you were saying about working on comics on a daily basis, I guess, this week was fulfilling for you ?
Sammy Harkham : Yeah, it was interesting — it’s very different. It’s not like — we don’t finish the week going : « we made great work. » But you definitely feel like those muscles, those comic-making muscles, are totally at a high level. Now, I feel that I can go home and I can work. A lot of self-confidence, you build up self-confidence.
Xavier Guilbert : In terms of the interactions with other cartoonists, how did it go ? Did you know a lot of them beforehand ?
Sammy Harkham : I knew a couple of artists. Like I know Marc Bell, but I haven’t seen Marc — I saw him a month ago, briefly. For one evening, he was in town. Before that, I hadn’t seen him in years. So you know, there’s a couple — Charles [Burns] is somebody I’ve always seen around, but I’ve never spend a substantial around with him. The stuff that’s most interesting to me, is spending time with the European artists, for sure. Because that’s a whole world that — you know, their tradition of how they get to art comics, and how they get to what they do is so different… than in the North American tradition. So I was spending a lot of time, just trying to like — talk about… trying to get a sense of where it starts for them, you know ? What were they reading when they were younger ? where do they start feeling that initial spark ? how does the industry work now ? I don’t fully understand it (laugh), but I understand it better. But yeah, definitely, it was good. I liked it.
Xavier Guilbert : Everybody noticed how you spent a lot of time looking at the way the others were working. There was something of the editor there…
Sammy Harkham : That’s interesting, they’re putting that on me. I’m not looking at their work with that kind of like : « is it good enough ? », never, you know ?
Xavier Guilbert : No, it was more about the curiosity that you showed. Not in a predatory or judgmental sense.
Sammy Harkham : Oh, okay, good.
Xavier Guilbert : For us, looking at this kind of reunion from the outside is, just trying to understand the chemistry. Every time, the chemistry is different, and there are a lot of things that come into play there, like the cultural divide between the French and American people, but also in terms of the stuff they are interested in. That something that came up too, with the French people saying it’s interesting to see that the Americans are putting more emphasis on the design, rather than some of the things they would focus more on themselves. And you were one of those who were the most interested by what came out from the other side of the table.
Sammy Harkham : Oh yeah, for sure. I mean, I guess it’s just general curiosity. It’s like we’re all in this thing, so how can you not be interested ? To me, it seems like an obvious thing. It is natural to me to want to see what people are doing, and it’s also very inspiring. I come in in the morning, I walk around the table, maybe someone’s sitting there working. To watch Charles Burns, to watch Pierre [Ferrero], it’s unbelievable. To watch Menu — I mean, I’ve been reading Menu’s work since I was 14, 15 years old. So to see him work, it’s amazing. He’s kind of an anomaly, I think, in France. You don’t have this sort of go-for-broke cartoon sensibility that’s just like — it’s out there, like that. But no signifiers towards a more fine art approach, a more pretentious approach. So it’s interesting. I think it’s all very — it’s also, you want to maximize an experience, I think. You want to look at something and go : « I don’t want to regret this. » So you wanna just take every moment and try to really do the most with it.
Xavier Guilbert : When you’re not doing this kind of residency, how do you feed this kind of curiosity ?
Sammy Harkham : I don’t read. I try not to engage with things that make me unhappy, I try not to read any of the Internet. You know, see what everyone’s seeing. I try to just engage with work that I like, I think that’s what’s important. So for me, that’s a lot of old work, and then I like keeping track of certain things, and I’m trying to just stay positive, and excited. But that means I can’t read everything and being engaged with every conversation that people are having, because — you know, you don’t want to argue with people, you don’t want to fight with people, you don’t want to focus on things that aren’t going to make your work better, that are going to make you feel better about things. So it’s really just, for me, reading certain authors in literature, and reading certain cartoonists. And keeping my head where it needs to be. And just keeping it there as much as possible. It’s very hard, you know. I think every cartoonist is like — there’s so many distractions, that you have to be really honed in on what it is you’re doing, and find a way for you to enjoy the process and the work.
Xavier Guilbert : The way you’re describing it, it seems you managed to find a safe place.
Sammy Harkham : It’s a mental safe place, for sure.
Xavier Guilbert : And that might explain the fact that this year is going to be a very full year for you, with two Crickets and maybe a Kramers…
Sammy Harkham : Kramers will be done this year, and two issues of Crickets. Look, last year I didn’t have to do anything. I worked on a film, and I worked on a television show, so take out two months. So that’s ten months, and I worked as much as I possibly could, on one comic as long as possible, and I did 45 pages. So it’s not a huge output, if I had had the two months, maybe I would have been 55, you know ? Probably 55-60 pages, so you just go : okay, it’s never going to be churning out 10 pages in a week. One or two a week, just stay focused on what you have in front of you, and just keep going and going. I can’t think of a page or a scene 50 pages from now, or what the book looks like, or what the cover is. I’m just focused on just — this page, and making that page in front of me. I wake up in the morning, I get in the shower, and I go : today, okay, they’re in a bar, they’re having this conversation… And I gotta get so excited, that it’s going to be the best page I ever do. Every page has to be the best. Even if it’s so boring, and there’s nothing dynamic, I have to find a way where this is going to be the one, finally, that’s going to be a great page of comics. And that thinking, just being focused on one thing — not the book, not if it’s going to sell, not who is going to buy it. I don’t even know who’s going to publish it. I’m just like : this page, these jokes, these characters… that’s it.
Xavier Guilbert : Sounds like you really found some peace with yourself…
Sammy Harkham : I think it’s a process. You find a process — you live. I mean, you live your life, and it’s all like you’re groping in the dark to find a way in life of how to live your life and how to balance things in your life. So this is a way that makes a lot of sense to me, with cartooning. I have — if I can find a way to just do that, that would be the best. But I haven’t solved that part of it. It still have to make a living doing other work. I wish I could find — I mean, that’s why I have the most respect for people who make a living drawing comics. Regardless of what kind of comics they are. My God, they can do that, that is unbelievable… Very difficult. But yeah, it’s an ongoing process, for sure.
[Interview conducted on August 6th, 2015 in Minneapolis, during PFC#5]