It Takes a Deep Reading. And an Obsession.: An Interview with Paul Karasik




FOR MORE THAN three decades, Paul Karasik has been a key figure in the comics world, working as a writer, artist, editor, scholar, and teacher. With fellow cartoonist Mark Newgarden, he wrote “How to Read Nancy,” long considered one of the essential essays about how comics work, which the two expanded into a book that was finally published last year. How to Read Nancy details how all the elements of comics can be found in a single comic strip by Ernie Bushmiller, which Karasik and Newgarden deconstruct in multiple ways.

Karasik started his career as an associate editor at the legendary Raw Magazine, where he worked under Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly. Karasik went on to adapt Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass to comics with Dave Mazzucchelli, and with his sister Judy told the story of their family and their autistic brother David in The Ride Together: A Brother and Sister’s Memoir of Autism in the Family.

Karasik currently teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design. He is a regular contributor to The New Yorker, Martha’s Vineyard Magazine, The Vineyard Gazette, and other publications, and has edited a new children’s book just released by Toon Books. We spoke recently about his many collaborations, how his projects chose him — even though he doesn’t believe in fate — and launching a Patreon.

Photo by Paul Karasik and Ivy Ashe.

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ALEX DUEBEN: Paul, you have this career and body of work that I think is pretty common for prose writers and fine artists — you’re an artist and writer, you’re a teacher, a scholar, an editor. For cartoonists though, this is pretty rare.

PAUL KARASIK: In the history of 20th-century cartooning, I think it was in some ways easier to make a living being a nine-to-five syndicated cartoonist or comic book artist. But for me that’s not just harder to do but would be impossible to do. The cartoonists whom I admired the most over the years have been journeymen cartoonists like the great syndicated cartoonists, but I could not imagine just sitting down, like Ernie Bushmiller or George Herriman, and knocking out three or four panels of the same characters day after day, month after month, year after year. It’s just not in my temperament. I’ve had to find a way of trying to cobble together a livelihood using my particular skillset.

You make single-panel cartoons for The New Yorker and other venues. I feel like I only started seeing this work from you in recent years. Is this something you started doing in the past decade, or have you been making these all along?

I’ve been doing that for like 20 years, but I’ve gotten a little more serious about it recently. That is to say, I’ve been spending a little more time developing batches to send to The New Yorker every week. I’ve been sending weekly batches to The New Yorker for years. In part, it’s to have a little bit of discipline in my life. Saturday is when I work on my New Yorker batch and send it in. Recently I’ve had very good luck. I’ve sold three cartoons in the past six months and I have a cartoon for the caption contest coming up, so that little bit of extra effort I’ve been putting into it is paying off. What’s happened, also, is that my drawing has gotten much better over that period of time. The regimen of drawing every week has improved not just my rendering but also my thinking about how to stage a gag and composition. I look at my drawing from, say, 10 years ago and cringe, but I can see a steady improvement. My drawing has always been something I hadn’t felt that great about, but I’m starting to feel better about it.

When I think about your work, I think of you as more concerned with questions of form and structure and design than with the line art.

Absolutely. In fact, in the classes that I teach at the Rhode Island School of Design, or anywhere, I’m much more interested in instructing students in the formal aspects of cartooning than I am in the rendering. I pointedly tell my students when they enter the classroom, “Relax, your actual drawing is not going to be on the line here, this is a class about thinking about storytelling or thinking about comics structures.”

I reread City of Glass recently and I was struck by the part in Art Spiegelman’s introduction where he noted that when he asked if you wanted to do an adaptation of the novel you said that you had already started writing it.

Ten years earlier. It’s this very Paul Auster–y story. I had met Auster as the parent of a student I was teaching. I got interested in his writing and did a little sketch in my sketchbook breaking down City of Glass. Just sketchbook idle thinking. Then 10 years pass and Spiegelman calls me on the phone — which coincidentally is the way that City of Glass starts, with a phone call — and asked, “Do you want to work on this project?” I said, “I’ve already started.”

Rereading the book and the introduction, I felt that story shouldn’t have just appeared in the prose introduction, but should have been incorporated into the book as this meta-story on top of the story in some way.

[Laughs.] It’s embedded in the telling. Most of the projects that I’ve been involved in have chosen me rather than me choosing them. All of my successful works. The impetus for How to Read Nancy came from a casual meeting that my collaborator Mark Newgarden and I had with Brian Walker back in the ’80s. Brian knew that we were interested in Nancy, and he was doing a book of the best of Ernie Bushmiller’s strips. He said, can I get together with you guys and pick your brains? He had one of those old-school mini tape recorders and we had dinner at a Thai restaurant. Mark and I started talking and Brian was recording it and we were there for hours. Brian called the next day and said, “The tape recorder didn’t work, can you write something up?” So we found this paperback of Nancy and we almost randomly chose a strip — that page was falling out of the book. We knew immediately that it would be a good example to use to talk about Nancy. We wrote up this essay, “How to Read Nancy,” for Brian’s book. It came out in 1988. Over the years, the essay has gotten used and pirated and handed around in comics studies classes and eventually we thought, maybe we should write a book-length version of it. It all comes from a tape recorder not working. [Laughs.]

I spoke with Ben Nadler, whom you taught at RISD and whom you just edited at Toon Books, and he said that a lot of the editorial process was you pushing him to focus more on the writing and storytelling in a way he hadn’t before.

My core interest is the gears that make up the stopwatch of comics. That’s what Mark and I were focusing on in How to Read Nancy. The basic conceit is that we take this single Nancy comic strip from August 8, 1959, and show how the entire syntax of comics language is hidden within it. In unpacking this claim you can clearly see the structural components that make up comics. I used to do this Nancy lecture deconstructing that strip with my students halfway through the semester, but I’ve moved that up to the first class because it prevents them from making a lot of mistakes.

Mark and I both teach comics classes. Mark teaches at Pratt, and I teach at RISD. So now I have a textbook for my class where I can ask students to read the chapter on balloon placement and then write a paragraph analyzing a specific Nancy strip’s use of balloon placement. Then I tell them to come back next week and show me somewhere in the story you’re working on where you’ve used balloon placement with intention. The book is so great because it’s a physical manifestation of these somewhat abstract lessons — because it’s not just about the story, but about how the story is told.

You began reading comics at a young age.

I was reading comics as a kid but I was also reading the Hitchcock/Truffaut book. There are certain landmark texts from my youth that had a profound effect on the way I look at comics. And I was exposed to good comics. I collected superhero comics when I was a kid, but my dad loved Pogo and had the New Yorker album of cartoons and the old Krazy Kat book with the E. E. Cummings preface. Comics were part of the household.

Reading comics from a young age means you have a certain understanding of the language of comics. But at a certain point, you really started thinking about and articulating the language of comics in a very analytical way. I’m wondering what that point was.

When did that occur? That’s hard to say. I have to give Art Spiegelman a certain amount of credit there. He’s very interested in the formal aspects of comics, of course. His book Breakdowns is a key text for cartoonists, certainly of my generation. Those who are unfamiliar with Breakdowns should run out and get a copy. To be in the classroom with someone who was as enthusiastic about comics in the same way that a bunch of us in the classroom were was very exciting. It gave us license to think about comics in a certain way. Certainly for myself that was a pivotal point. To go back to something I was saying before, I was insecure about my drawing. But being around Art and that very interesting bunch of students who were taking that class at that time — Drew Friedman and Mark Newgarden and Kaz and Glenn Head, guys who were thinking about comics — and being given the license to take it deeper was like letting open the floodgates. I started thinking about comics less in terms of the actual drawings and more in terms of thinking about comics. I have a few students in my class at RISD who are from Brown University, and they don’t have the same drawing chops as my RISD students, but I say, “Relax. It’s more about thinking and understanding the fundamental structures of comics and then applying it to whatever drawing skill you have. Don’t get hung up on the drawing. If your drawing is consistent, it can be stick figures. Consistency is the dirty secret.”

Structure and form are so important to how you work. I’m thinking here about The Ride Together, the book you and your sister made about your brother. My nephew is autistic, so I know how important repetition and structure are. You grew up with someone who needed that, and in the book you both tell stories about how your brother David would act out shows he watched. I can’t help but think that had an effect on how you think about story and form.

Very possibly. A couple of things pop into my head. My brother David, as you say, would obsessively watch the same programs over and over again and then would repeat them over and over again, acting them out. Watching reruns on television and the same old movies over and over again on television in syndication was a big part of my youth. I spent a lot of time in front of the television, and maybe there’s something about watching the same episode of Superman a dozen times between the ages of seven and 12, and each time looking at it a different way. Maybe there’s something about that there.

Certainly the structure of the book itself exemplifies a unique way of thinking about producing a book. Even now I can’t think of any other book that exactly mimics the structure that Judy and I employed in The Ride Together. You have two voices, one in prose and one in comics, switching back and forth to tell a memoir story chronologically. Judy’s stories tend to encompass a certain amount of time and mine are more interested in depicting a brief moment of time in comics form. We switch back and forth between these two different voices and two different sensibilities. My sister is a really great writer, but her writing voice is quite different from my comics voice, and together they give voice to a third voice, our brother, who doesn’t have a public voice.

You mentioned Art Spiegelman before. You met because you took his class at the School of Visual Art, right?

Many different artists have had many different relationships with Art and Françoise, but for me, walking into that classroom was like a beacon. I had been floundering around. I thought I was going to become a teacher, which I was, but I had a lack of focus after I graduated from Pratt. I was thrilled by what Art had to say and by the depth of his understanding about comics. After the second or third class, we went out for a cup of coffee, and after the fourth class he invited me down to meet Françoise. The next thing I knew, I was the associate editor of Raw Magazine. [Laughs.] Which basically meant shooting photostats and making coffee for Art and Françoise. There were very few editorial duties left after the two of them were finished, but just leaning over their shoulders and participating in evaluating new work and sitting at the table with those two very keen editors had a huge impact on me.

I would imagine that editing at Toon Books is a very different experience from working at Raw.

With the Toon Book I just completed with Ben, Françoise just let me edit it. Françoise was keeping an eye on the whole thing and she certainly has plenty to offer and she’s got a standard for Toon Books that is her vision, and the book has to fit into that as well. We went back and forth a lot on certain pages and images in a way that was as rigorous as anything at Raw. It was a really fun, collaborative experience. I just couldn’t say no. Ben Nadler had been my student five years earlier, and I loved his drawing. His sense of color is sublime.

The three things you’re known for are City of Glass, How to Read Nancy, and your Fletcher Hanks compilations. You have a comics afterword at the end of The Complete Fletcher Hanks and I Shall Destroy All Civilized Planets about meeting Hanks’s son.

I probably worked harder on that story than any single piece of work I ever did. In a way, I’m proudest of that because there’s a lot hidden in that story. I purposefully put that after all the Fletcher Hanks stories so that one would read these strange, marvelous, and twisted stories from the earliest days of comics and wonder in the back of your head, who is this guy I’ve never heard of? In the afterword, you find out exactly what kind of man Fletcher Hanks was. It has this backwash effect on your previous reading of all of these stories, refocusing your understanding and coloring your interpretation of them.

It was one of those things where the story came to me. I’m not one who really believes in fate per se, but one by one, most of my major works have been projects that lifted me by the shirt collars. In this case I was familiar with the work of Fletcher Hanks because of the cartoonist Jerry Moriarty. He’s a great cartoonist and collector and has a real sharp eye. He had brought some stories to the Raw offices and we chose one to run in an issue of Raw. Years passed and I hadn’t thought about Fletcher Hanks. In the early days of the internet, somebody sent me a link to another Fletcher Hanks story that somebody had posted. I couldn’t find any more stories but I searched for Fletcher Hanks and I came up with a site about World War II pilots. This is a cartoonist who worked for three years in the earliest days of the comic books. He drew 53 stories and then disappeared. When I saw his name on that page I thought, this has got to be the same guy, he stopped making comics because he went to war. I sent him an email and I said, if you’re the same Fletcher Hanks who made those comic book stories, I’d be interested in talking with you. Almost immediately I get back an email saying, “My name is Fletcher Hanks Jr. My father might have been the cartoonist you’re looking for but I don’t know because he left home when I was 10.” The last line of his email to me — I can still remember it verbatim — was: “There may have been two Fletcher Hanks who were cartoonists, but only one son of a bitch like my old man.” I was like, what? I emailed with him some more and then I met him. When I heard the stories, there was no doubt that his father was this cartoonist. When I heard the story about what a brute he was, I realized, now I’ve got to do a book about this.

I don’t know how to describe Hanks’s work except as bizarre. What about his work appealed to you?

I read a lot of superhero comics. I still have thousands of superhero comics in plastic bags in my basement that I never look at anymore. They were a key part of my preteen years. So I’ve read a lot of comics. Fletcher Hanks is the granddaddy of them all. The first Stardust story appeared months after the first Superman story. Fantomah, the first female superhero, predates Wonder Woman. I knew the genre inside and out and suddenly here is this superhero comic that’s really better — I think — than just about anything that came after it. It’s got all the key elements, the superheroics and the costumes and good versus evil, but everything is cranked up to 16 on a scale of one to 10. The drawing is extraordinarily bold. The use of color. These twisted stories of grim retribution where the hero doesn’t capture the villain at the very end but somewhere in the middle of the story and then spends the second half torturing the villain. There were no rules about what you can and can’t do in a comic book in the earliest days of the comic book. And no one cared. They were just trying to stuff pages into these comics to fill them up and separate innocent children from their dimes. There was nobody looking over Fletcher Hanks’s shoulder saying, “You can’t show a man getting torn limb from limb.” I asked Will Eisner if he had any recollection of Fletcher Hanks, and all he remembered was that Hanks didn’t take up any space in the bullpen. He’d come to the offices and deliver the pages — penciled, inked, lettered, ready to go, and on time. I don’t think Eisner ever looked at the work other than to see that it was done.

You said before that while the essay “How to Read Nancy” came out 30 years ago, you and Mark spent 10 years writing the book.

We’d been teaching that single comic strip that we deconstruct in the essay for years in our comics classes. We figured, okay, we can knock this book out in two years. Fantagraphics listed it at least three or four times. It would look like it was close to completion and then we’d find out something new. It was 10 years of working every day on How to Read Nancy. Both of us. I should have an entire server just for the emails that Mark and I sent back and forth about it. The minutiae. We took to heart Ernie Bushmiller’s mantra, which was do the job right.

The first time I read it, I went, “Oh, half the book is appendices.” And when you read the book it makes sense. I’m sure those appendices took longer to assemble than writing the text.

They took longer to collect. We made a decision early on that all of the documentation in the book — all of the strips and bits of newspaper and advertising and flotsam and jetsam of 20th-century culture — should be shot from the original source. We found on microfilm the very first illustration of Ernie Bushmiller from the New York World. We knew it was his by the design and the signature letters “EB.” I saw it on microfilm, this teeny illustration, and then we had to find a print version of it. Mark and I made this pact that everything in this book had to come from original source material. It’s hard to say how many years were spent digging around and going to libraries and writing to universities and spending hours in the Library of Congress and going through microfilm and trying to excavate original newsprint.

Interestingly enough, it’s easier to find newsprint from the 1930s than it is from the 1960s. Universities and libraries across the world held on to the bound volumes of newspapers at first, but after the mid-’50s when everything started going to microfilm they were not binding the newspaper together anymore and were just dumping them. Because the Nancy strip that we deconstructed features a hose as a prop there’s one appendix in the back that is the history of using a hose as a gag prop. It dates back to the mid-1800s in French and German humor publications. We had a lot of help from friends in an internet group, but finding those original pages to get a high-resolution scan from an 1870 German humor magazine was easier than finding a sheet of Nancy from the late 1950s.

I should add that I’m younger, so I always thought Nancy was this mildly amusing gag strip. For most of my life it was made by Guy Gilchrist, who was not particularly good. It’s only as an adult that people told me to seek out Bushmiller’s work, which is so bizarre and brilliant.

Part of the hat trick that Mark and I pulled off here is explaining how something that looks so ridiculously simple and diagrammatic could contain all of the elements of comics. It takes a deep reading. And an obsession. And 10 years. [Laughs.]

In recent years, you’ve made a series of essayistic comics about life on Martha’s Vineyard. Do you plan to make more of those?

I love doing those. I live on Martha’s Vineyard, and a lot of people’s impression is of it being a summer resort for the wealthy and the literati. And it is. But when you live here year-round, there are interesting people doing interesting tasks to make this place work. I’ve done a series of these graphic reports about how a dock is built and who the guy who builds the docks is and what he’s like. I rode around with a guy who pumps septic tanks for a few days. Part of those graphic reports are profiles of people, but they’re also about how things work. I just find that really interesting. It’s not dissimilar from deconstructing a comic strip. I really like how things work and I like how people make things work. If I could get a regular salaried job just doing those comics for the Vineyard Gazette, that would be fantastic. As it is, I squeeze those in between whatever else I’m doing. I’m about to do one on composting worms because here a number of schools are collecting lunch compost and a nonprofit on the island is setting up worm composters. I don’t really know how that works, so I’m about to find out to do a piece about it. It all fits into this jigsaw puzzle of interests that I have.

The Vineyard is a very ritzy place, but as you say, it’s also very literary. Oak Bluffs is this legendary African-American community, you have a wind farm project coming in. It’s an interesting place. Is there a chance we’ll see a book of these strips?

It’ll take a few more years. Maybe another four or five years and I’ll have a book’s worth. I also do the inside back cover of Martha’s Vineyard Magazine, and that’s a gag page that’s kind of snarky.

After spending a decade working with a collaborator on How to Read Nancy, it sounds like you want to spend time focusing on your own work. After spending so much time writing about the fundamentals of comics do you feel an interest in focusing on your own?

The first time I ever spoke to Jules Feiffer he gave me this advice: “Always know what your next project is.” I am working on a couple of book projects now, but they are both collaborations. I like to collaborate. I also have a non-graphic novel book, a kind of “activity book,” being shown around by my agent. In addition to my weekly batch sent to The New Yorker, I have a “Z*ggy Tuesdays Group” on Facebook where I take a page from an old paperback of Ziggy cartoons and manipulate them, posting the Before and After. This is kind of a minor parlor trick that I find amusing.

My teaching is very much part of my creative work, as well. By articulating specific aspects of comics to students, my own understanding is deepened. Last week, for instance, I put together a lecture about how the Peanuts characters are given interior lives through Charles M. Schulz’s use of the silent panel, and how he drew their gazing. Next fall I will be teaching at RISD as well as at Boston University for the first time. In spring 2020, I will be a Visiting Professor at Texas A&M, where I will be teaching and working on a comics-related research project.

All of this work and it is still damn hard to make a living. So I have begun a Patreon page for anyone who has liked my work in the past and cares to help support my work in the future.

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Alex Dueben has written for The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, The Comics Journal, the Paris Review, The Poetry Foundation, The Rumpus, and many other publications. More of his work can be found at alex-dueben.com and @alexdueben.


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