Rob Clough is a highly respected reviewer of comics both mainstream and small press. In addition to his massive month-long feature “30 Days of CCS,” completed in November of 2013, a huge number of The Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS) alumni populated his “Best of 2013” roundup’s short form category. The following interview was conducted via Google Docs in December 2013.
Carl Antonowicz: You run two review blogs–one at the Comics Journal, the other at a blogspot site. Both of these are jampacked with very insightful reviews of new work that has by and large not been reviewed elsewhere. What drew you to privilege minicomics and independent books the same as more mainstream ones?
Rob Clough: Minicomics are simply part of my comics DNA as a reader. I started attending SPX back in 1997 and have been fascinated with the possibilities of DIY, small press books that often double as art objects. I am also interested in the trajectory of artists throughout their career, and there are any number of great cartoonists who have used minicomics as their sort of entry-level ticket into the comics field. Seeing them get better and evolve in public, even with fairly limited print runs, has always been fascinating to me.
That said, I don’t consider minicomics or self-published comics as a sort of minor league. There are too many great cartoonists who release nearly all of their new work in this manner, like John Porcellino. It’s as valid an expression of comics creation as any.
As a critic, I started writing about minicomics because that’s what I tend to get in the mail: small press publishers eager for feedback. The fact that I review everything sent to me (eventually!), especially from self-publishers, has sort of fed on this, as I know received dozens of minicomics a year.
CA: You recently wrapped up a feature in which you reviewed 44 different CCS Alumni. That’s a tremendous amount of work. What prompted that? Were there any trends that you noticed across the–what, 10000 ish pages of comics you read for the project?
RC: The idea of The Center for Cartoon Studies fascinated me when I first heard about it a decade ago. It seemed completely crazy, yet I had enormous respect for James Sturm and everything he was doing to set it up seemed to make sense. When I encountered the Sundays anthology table at MOCCA in 2005, I was impressed by the ambition of the editors (Chuck Forsman, Alex Kim, Sean Ford, Joseph Lambert) and thought it was time that I started to really investigate the work coming out of CCS.
Ever since that time, I have made it known that I want to review the work of every CCS cartoonist interested in sending it to me. The response I’ve received, both in the mail and at shows, has been tremendous. One reason why I like to prioritize to reviewing CCS comics as much as I can is because CCS has seemed to inculcate a culture of critique. More than any artists I’ve ever reviewed, CCS alums are hungry for feedback, even if it’s negative feedback. That’s especially true when the artists leave White River Junction and don’t have a regular circle of trusted voices around to offer critiques; I imagine creating into the void like that must be unnerving.
What prompted this particular feature now was getting a ton of comics from CCS folks at SPX. I filled up a huge bag with those comics, and more came in the mail from others. I thought it might be fun to organize and spotlight CCS in such a fashion and draw a little attention to High-Low as a result of this particular stunt.
As for trends, I’d say that the average CCS student now is a better draftsman than when the school started. Many CCS students are using genre tropes as backdrops for discussing issues like gender, class, race, politics and interpersonal relationships. Several CCS students are interested in comics journalism and comics with a political and even pedagogical bent. There’s a lot of ambition at work in so many of the comics, especially the recent anthologies. Some of the early CCS self-published anthologies were on the rough and amateurish side, but for newer anthology series like Irene, everyone is bringing their A-game.
CA: I wonder if that’s not an alt-comics-wide development, though. I think the work that I’ve picked up at convention in the past few years has been significantly stronger than it was when I started going to shows back in ‘09. Have you noticed this too?
RC: Yes. Part of this is a function of there being more cartoonists in general than four or five years ago, as a decade of easier access to old and new comics alike by way of comics shops, libraries and the internet has been an inspiration incubator for young cartoonists. It’s certainly played a role in the emerging comics scene in England, for example. But from a simple, crude rubric of “how many interesting minis did I pick up at SPX?”, a decade ago I found myself scraping the bottom of the barrel with some selections I made, whereas now I don’t have time to get to every good comic at the show. I would say that truly exceptional work is still quite rare, but the number of cartoonists who are at least good and trying to get better has definitely exploded.
CA: You had mentioned in an end-of-year review in 2012 that you had plans to collect a bunch of your reviews in book form. Any more news on that front?
RC: That’s shelved for the moment; just not enough time to get all of that together. Hopefully in 2014, after I’ve knocked out some other projects, I’ll get a chance to do that. However, some of my reviews will be reprinted in digital form soon. I’ll have more details on that in a couple of weeks. (On January 9, Clough revealed that many of his reviews will be republished in the online comics publication Infinity.–Ed.)
CA: What trends in minicomics excite you at the moment?
RC: First off, I am excited by the new and seemingly endless supply of young, ambitious cartoonists who have cropped up over the last five years. What I like most about them is their work ethic and devotion to comics as their chosen form of art. They are lifers, like so many CCS grads, and they are dedicated to getting better.
I like that many artists are finding ways to push at the boundaries of what is possible in comics. Some of that is done in exploring genres frequently overlooked as trashy or disposable, like porn, horror, fantasy, etc. There have been some remarkable comics in all of these genres done by smart, forward-thinking cartoonists that warp and mutate tropes in order to create something new, disturbing, funny and/or memorable.
Along the same lines, I like how artists are willing to cycle through influences quickly and arrive at unusual stylistic destinations. Take Sam Alden, for instance. He began with his career using a naturalistic style not unlike Nate Powell or Craig Thompson. For his recent work, he’s gone to a far sketchier, smudgier style that has created a powerful sense of dynamism in his drawings and evinces emotion in a more immediate and visceral manner. Luke Howard is experimenting with a variety of different approaches but really nailed it with his story in Irene #3, and that’s another example of an artist looking around until he finds something that really works.
I love that there’s a real commitment to formal and aesthetic innovation, along with a reclamation of the means of production for many cartoonists. More and more of them seem to own their own Risograph machines and use them for publishing their own comics as well as those of others. At the same time, the CCS grads have a strong grounding in story and narrative, so that when they do an eye-catching cover or employ fancy colors, it’s all in service to the story. The recent Dog City comics box is a great example of style and substance, as each of the nine minis/mini anthologies is well worth reading on their own, yet it comes in this beautiful, irresistible art object and comes with a poster, prints, etc. This is different than ten years ago, when there were plenty of beautiful art object zines that weren’t especially interesting in terms of actually reading them.
CA: You’ve mentioned the concept of the comic as art object a couple of times now. Do you think that minicomics are moving more toward that direction–that minicomics are more often becoming objects in and of themselves than containers for narrative?
RC: I actually think this is less pronounced than in past years, where the art object nature of some comics was more important than that actual contents of the comic itself. Certainly I still see many hand-made comics that are beautiful art objects, but there seems to be more careful consideration with regard to the comic’s gestalt rather than its outward appearance. This is not to privilege comics with a narrative focus over other kinds of comics, because I quite enjoy the sort of thing that DW does for example, but DW focuses on every aspect of the reading experience, not just its decorative qualities.
CA: I’ve noticed a lot more cartoonists talking about formalist concerns in interviews and the like recently. Do you think creators now are more aware of those concerns than they were when you started? Or is there just more of a space to talk about them?
RC: A little of both, perhaps. So many cartoonists from my generation (the 90s) were self-taught and have perhaps a more intuitive understanding of comics’ formal elements than one that favors it being laid bare, so to speak. I think that’s why Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics was such a powerful force for so many young cartoonists, because he spells out a number of technical storytelling techniques that are rarely addressed in texts that tend to focus more on drawing. I happen to disagree with a number of his conclusions and definitions, but there’s no question that this was important. The fact that there are now so many institutions teaching comics means that not only are there many more cartoonists who are well-versed in a formal understanding of comics, but that this formal language is now a common language for most cartoonists. Whether or not a cartoonist goes to art school now, there’s no doubt that the language of pedagogy is now a permanent part of the comics vernacular.
CA: You’ve only recently added a ‘donate’ button to the side of your blogspot site. Would you care to talk about this a little bit?
RC: Well, my family and I had a bit of financial difficulty recently with a perfect storm of expenses hitting us at once. I added the “donate” button as a way of hoping that folks might help out. Boy, did they. In the span of just three days, I received enough in donations to cover all of our expenses. The internet can be a wonderful place, sometimes, as can the comics community.
CA: That’s wonderful! Do you think that this community spirit/willingness to “give” is a recent development in the digital world?
RC: The concept of crowdfunding and the ease with which sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are certainly recent developments, but really the speed with which one can get one’s plea out there is astounding. Social networking can be a truly powerful force, and there’s no doubt that it has served to grow comics culture and the community in general. Take Portland’s The Projects, for instance. This is a festival model show that brings in cartoonists from around the world and celebrates creativity over commerce. I stole liberally from this model (and several others) when creating my own show with my partners Eric Knisley and Bill Fick, the Durham Indie Comics Expo (DICE).
CA: I’d heard you were putting together a show. Was that a curated thing? How did that pan out? Are you going to do it again next year?
RC: The model for the show that I was a part of was that of a comics festival. It was curated in the sense that the guests were hand-picked by me and the other organizers. That’s Bill Fick, a Duke art professor who graciously allowed us to use his screenprinting studio space, Super Graphic; and long-time local cartoonist, Eric Knisley, who handled the technical and drawing end of things. He designed the DICE graphic. I put out an open call to invite any interested CCS alums to come on up, and we had Jan Burger, Rio Aubry Taylor (both now locals), Jesse Mead and Bob Oxman come to the show.
So the show included elements I’ve always wanted at a comics festival. I’ve always wanted to have a gallery show at a comics fest, and the Super Graphic space has a beautiful gallery space. Local and out-of-town cartoonists showed their work, and we had two separate gallery events apart from the show that were well-attended. I wanted to have a single merchandise table where I or a volunteer would sell all of the comics, though individual artists were free to sit there as well and sell their wares. I did this to give artists an opportunity to participate in the extensive programming that we set up, and the response was tremendous. Because there were no table fees for the cartoonists, that made them feel less like they had to get their money’s worth by sitting down and not being able to participate in the show.
Having an interactive event was also very important. Eric had a table with two chairs, a long scroll of papers and some magic markers and encouraged people to sit down and draw, and they did. The local Durham Comics Project brought their “comics contraption”, an ingenious, hand-cranked device that scrolls along a giant sheet of paper inside a box, allowing anyone to draw something in the two big panels that appear inside the box until it’s cranked along. Much of the programming was interactive, as we had a workshop by Rio Taylor, local cartoonist and librarian Amy Godfrey and a screenprinting workshop by Fick. We also had a presentation by Joan Reilly, editor of the anthology The Big Feminist But as well as a critics’ panel featuring Craig Fischer, Ken Parille and me. The panels were packed, some cartoonists made a little money, and the comics community in the Durham area got a big boost. We definitely plan to do it again next year, possibly in conjunction with the Durham County Library’s annual Comics Fest.
CA: Finally, what do you want to see happen in comics in the next five years?
RC: Distribution…continues to be a big problem. What I’d like to see is a loose alliance of cartoonists who can offer support to each other with various skills, be it editing, graphic design, distribution, etc. Sort of a barter system of skills, as each cartoonist finds a way to help out someone with a publishing difficulty. I want there to be a way for people with families to be able to stay in the publishing game and not be forced to step out because they’re tired of living in near-poverty. I’d love for there to be some kind of freelance financial advisor for small press publishers to help them make sound decisions. I like the trend of cartoonists increasingly controlling the means of publishing and production with risographs and would love to see cartoonists owning a printing shop. I want to see the network of shows increase and have strong, regional flavors to each one. I want to see comics communities thrive, not so much to act as back-slapping support but rather as ways of creating collaborative efforts in terms of art and publishing. Finally, as a critic, I’d like to see more new critical voices emerge and for the older voices to engage them in a critical dialogue. I’d love for a greater diversity in age, gender, race and sexual orientation to be present in that new mass of critical voices, and I’d want them to examine comics both familiar and new to the older critics.