INTERVIEW: Thomas Herpich
Interview Conducted by Adam Ford
Thomas Herpich's two published volumes to date are collections of dreamlike short stories and comic objects that are haunting, compelling and mesmerising. There's a black humour permeating Herpich's work, as well as a confrontational frankness in his observations. Adam Ford recently swapped some emails with Thomas in order to try out a few ideas that were inspired by Cusp and Gongwanadon.
Adam Ford: There are more prose pages among the comics in Gongwanadon than there are in Cusp. Is this a direction that you find yourself heading in: away from illustrated work and towards "straight" (as in whisky, straight) writing?
Thomas Herpich: Well, maybe. I haven't done much of anything creatively since finishing Gongwanadon. I haven't felt too compelled to write or draw. But I admit that more than once during the creation of Gongwanadon I tried to "force" an idea into a comics form that I knew (subconsciously, for the most part) would be better communicated some other way (these didn't end up in the published book). Because Cusp had received a lot of positive attention, and because I had committed to producing another book, I had put a lot of pressure on myself to create. Also, because I was creating for a larger audience, I felt like I had an opportunity that I shouldn't waste, so I had put a lot of pressure on myself to create work that was specifically virtuous and mature, content-wise. So I had a lot of ideas that weren't really appropriate for my comics work, and a lot of pressure to fit them in there somehow.
"Relaxation", the piece in Gongwanadon that is entirely prose, went through two or three drafts that were much more visual, much closer to conventional comics. Gradually I caught on to my own forcing of the idea into comics form, and I realized that I was diluting the original idea, not enhancing or clarifying it. And since I really thought this was an interesting story that I really wanted to share, I didn't just scrap it. I wrote it out straight, and it was very enjoyable. There was something almost mathematical about describing this event, where it felt like every word was either right or wrong. Helping or hurting. No vagueness. It was refreshingly precise. Drawing (for me) is a much foggier experience.
How do you mean "foggy"?
Well, when you draw, you have an essentially infinite number of choices with every mark you make. When you're writing you have a very limited palette. I think there's only like 20,000 words in the English language. I saw a piece in a gallery once where someone took a big piece of paper, maybe 5'x10', and wrote literally every word on it. It was unsettling. When I'm writing, I guess I'm usually trying to approach an ideal of perfect clarity. A perfectly efficient communication. And I can tell when I get it right, and that's very satisfying. I can't articulate the satisfaction I get from drawing so easily. It's a lot closer to my heart.
In addition to "Relaxation", there are also other pieces in Gongwanadon, which lean towards prose, but have some kind of illustrative element to them. How do you decide that a story needs THIS much illustration and no more?
I don't know. I guess it just feels right. Or "right enough". If I try to think about it too much it's like staring into infinity. I mean, is there really any logical, explainable reason to make a drawing such-and-such size, and not 2% smaller? To have it positioned here, and not 2 millimetres to the left?
I don't think about stuff like that when I'm working, of course. I just go with the feeling. Trying to be too logical about it is paralysing. Unfortunately, there may be some things in Gongwanadon that I knew didn't feel right, but just said "fuck it" since I needed to fill up 30 pages in a few weeks. Drawing and writing can be a pretty painful ordeal for me generally anyway, so I'm often fighting the impulse to say "this is good enough" and stop. It's been a long time since I was eager to draw. I guess it's a reflection of my anxiety and insecurity, which have really been on the upswing since I graduated from college about two and a half years ago. That's probably the answer to a lot of the aesthetic questions that could be asked of me.
With what you said about "Relaxation", this dilution of the idea by forcing it into comics form - you mean you felt like the pictures weren't adding anything to the story? This touches on an interesting aspect of comics: the ability of words and pictures to enhance and strengthen without being redundant. For example, the difference between a panel depicting a running man thinking, "I am running" or "I'm going to be late" and a panel depicting a man being beaten up thinking, "I'm going to be late". What are your thoughts on this enhancement vs. redundancy "trap" with respect to the comics form?
There are never any rules. The guy getting beat up is more clever, but clever isn't always appropriate. I've done my share of showing-off. Y'know: "look how smart I am, doesn't that impress you? Don't you like me now?" But sometimes redundancy is nice. For me, it's all about eliminating the distractions that get in the way of knowing what's necessary. If an artist has a good innate understanding of the tools available to him, then he won't be distracted by having to make sure he uses them correctly. If he is confident enough to not need to impress (or mystify or amuse or use any other defensive trick against) their audience, that's another huge distraction out of the way. It's important to trust your intuition, which is where the subtle, unique things are, and the really honest decisions are made. That's where the real satisfaction is. Those artists who can do that are the artists whose work is really exciting.
So you're in a bit of a creative lull at the moment, post-Gongwanadon. Do you think the urge to create will come back? Did you have a similar experience of not wanting to create after finishing Cusp?
Actually, yesterday afternoon, for the first time - probably since Cusp - I felt a rush of enthusiasm for making new art (including comics). I was on a shuttle bus from the airport. I'd just got back to New York from a trip to Asheville, North Carolina, and it was really really refreshing. It was by no means a comfortable or relaxing trip, but it was very "real" - very intense. It was more like a subtle reawakening. I've known for a while that living in New York was making me emotionally numb, and maybe even seducing me towards nihilism or embracing sin, but I haven't been able to do anything about it until recently.
What do you think are the risks, if any, of including prose in what's ostensibly a comic book?
I don't think anything bad could really come of it. Maybe if the book was 51% prose people might feel mislead if they bought it sight-unseen. Technically, I guess, it's being distributed as a comic book. But that's a pretty unlikely scenario (and not what you're getting at, I assume). Anyway, Gongwanadon only has about 3 or 4 pages of prose out of 48.
I don't mind anything being stuck in a comic book (prose, collages, photos, whatever) as long as it's interesting and feels necessary. Same goes, of course, for regular novels or any other art form. If an artist is responsible and humble and virtuous, and is motivated by a feeling of necessity, and isn't being lazy or mean-spirited towards his audience, then he shouldn't contain himself to arbitrary rules about what goes in a comic book or what goes in a novel. Just do what's necessary.
What for you defines what is necessary in your creative work?
What's necessary is what comes out when the filters of defensiveness and incompetence have been removed.
What's the process whereby a Tom Herpich story comes into being?
They're all born as differently as I can manage, since, more than almost anything else, I hate repeating myself, and I'm always wary of falling into any sort of rut, or developing some complacent method for creating. But usually my best ideas come from doodling. It's a good way of un-self-consciously developing an idea. The ideas I struggle with the most are the ones that I've thought about a lot before putting pencil to paper. I always get this feeling of redundancy. Like, since it's basically "complete" in my head, why should I bother putting it on paper? It's boring. And frustrating, too, since the real thing can never compete with the imaginary one. I try to let there be a lot of discovery and spontaneity in the development of a strip. The stories "Gongwanadon 1" and "Gongwanadon 2" were both drawn/written straight through with almost no forethought. The only substantial penciling I did came about halfway through "Gongwanadon 1", after they've landed on the planet, and for the duration of that story. I guess this was partly due to a loss of confidence (regarding the more complex backgrounds) and a loss of enthusiasm (though I'm not sure which came first). But I thought it was pretty interesting, in a meta-fictional sort of way, how, in this story about the excitement of anticipation and the confusion/disappointment/complacency of release, my noticeable (to me at least) lessening of authorial enthusiasm coincided very neatly with the post-"release" portion of the story. Also kinda interesting is that that portion of the story makes a lot more conventional "sense" than the preceding portion.
How do you feel about your work being described as like a dream-diary?
That feels pretty appropriate, though a bit dismissive, since dreams are kinda this free cornucopia of unearned ideas. I had to struggle a lot more for my material than if it was actually based on dreams. I do like elliptical, slightly mysterious storytelling, though, and all my work is about sex or insecurities, so that's pretty dreamlike.
How do you feel about your work being described as like a sketchbook?
That feels much more dismissive, but I guess I can see where people are coming from. Especially after describing my doodling/spontaneity approach to creating comics.
This isn't meant to sound as negative or insulting as it possibly might, but what's your artistic relationship to violence - emotional or physical? What about ugliness?
I think a lot of the violence and ugliness in my work is a reflection of the violence and ugliness I perceive in myself. I try to be honest above all else. Several people have taken this to be an endorsement of the violence and ugliness portrayed. Particularly the handful of references to rape in Cusp. Especially in the story "Gold Suits". The rape that occurs in that story, as well as the stereotypically unflattering portrayal of a black character, are deliberate exaggerations of my own racial and sexual fears. I thought that that would come through clearly. The main character in the story is basically de-humanizing his perceptions of the people he fears (by making them more "cartoony"), or avoiding seeing at them at all, in order to cope with the fear. That's what the scratched-out panel was supposed to indicate. Eventually he begins to see the error of his ways and begins to face reality head on. In this case, and in a lot of my work, I'm mocking my own fear or self-pity or whatever. Sometimes I'm just admitting to it. It's always the mocking that gets misconstrued as an endorsement. Which is probably something I should learn a lesson from. And it doesn't help that I tend towards such cryptic storytelling. And it also doesn't help that sometimes I just think cartoony violence is funny and cool.
Yeesh... after rereading that paragraph I just wrote, I'm convinced I should avoid publishing any sort of attempts at dealing with delicate social issues.
Well, that's sort of one of the things that appeals about trying to write about that sort of thing, yeah? How tricky is it to get the balance just right?
I don't know... Lately I haven't really wanted all those concerns floating around in my head when I'm trying to work. I think it stifles real virtue to consciously be trying to be virtuous. It makes me feel fraudulent. Hypothetically, I'd rather risk being an asshole to just not be so self-conscious about it (though lately I haven't been taking that risk too much...). It comes back to that "staring into infinity" thing. I've spent the past few years cultivating an acute self-consciousness, thinking I was doing myself a favour. Trying to weigh the virtue of every thought I had and basically every breath I took. The only conclusion I came to is that, under the microscope of cold logic, everything is arbitrary and pointless. My conscious mind is too limited to do almost anything without becoming overwhelmed to the point of paralysis. It's all about digging down to that intuition that I've been shovelling junk onto since I was a child (and especially since puberty.)
The trick with holding honesty up as an ultimate goal is that it can sometimes disregard the emotional reaction that pure, unadulterated honesty - which can sometimes be brutal - provokes in people.
I think that if I'd done a better job of being honest, there wouldn't have been a problem. I may still have brutally provoked people, that's not the problem. I just don't want to be misunderstood. I do take responsibility, though, for leaving the space open for these misunderstandings to take hold.
Given your interest in explorative and spontaneous approaches to creating work, how do you know when a story is finished?
It's always a little different, ending something, but usually I'm looking for the most concise, efficient, eloquent way I can find to communicate some sentiment or idea. When I can't whittle it down anymore, I know it's done. However, a lot of the work I'm most happy with has come from people encouraging me to expand on shorter pieces that I had considered finished. I haven't had much success encouraging myself like this, though.
The work in Cusp and Gongwanadon is all short-form. This isn't meant to sound like long-form work is inherently better, but I'm curious to know if you're working on any comic projects that take the form of longer book-length narratives.
I tried once, before Gongwanadon started taking shape, to make a long-form comic. It would've been about 120 pages. I had about 40 pages roughed out before I completely lost interest. The story was about the shortcomings of language - how people expect too much from communication. I guess I've got commitment difficulties when it comes to art. I almost never finish anything unless I've got some sort of gun to my head. For now, it's either publish short stuff or don't publish anything.
There seems to be a theme here, of you losing interest in stories. You've mentioned it a couple of times now. How do you feel about the effort that you have put in to projects that you eventually end up losing interest in? How do you feel about the projects themselves? Do you think you'd ever go back to that long-form comic?
I used to enjoy making stuff a lot more than I do now, and I'm trying to figure out if it's possible to enjoy making stuff again. And if so, how would I get there. The long line of abandoned projects feels like experiments all contributing, regardless of individual success or failure, to a better understanding of myself and my current dilemma. I don't think I'll ever get back to the big comic I started, just because it's kinda lame. There's a handful of scrapped projects, though, that I hope to get back to some day.
Are you working on anything right now?
I'm not working on any projects at the moment. Just trying to clear my head a little. Finishing up Gongwanadon was really acutely unpleasant and left a bad taste in my mouth. Almost all of the work in Cusp had been done in college, over the course of two years, to fulfil some assignment or other, and I found that after I graduated (two and a half years ago), without these external motivations (the assignments), I was almost completely stagnant creatively. I still had ideas, but I didn't act on them. I tried to solve this by committing to a big looming deadline six months off, with only about a quarter of the work for Gongwanadon finished. It was also a new experience to be creating work that I knew would be seen by a relatively huge audience (I originally expected Cusp to be seen by about 30 people), which was pretty intimidating. So anyway, I procrastinated for about four and a half months and then the last month and half before the deadline was so torturous that I've repressed most of the memories of it.
As an antidote to the self-consciousness that came from creating for an audience, I started making work that's too big and unwieldy to ever be printed. But now, however, I keep thinking that I could probably have a gallery show that lots of people will see. I can't think of anything that isn't fair game to try to get famous with in this postmodern world. I guess it might be time to quit trying to be so innocent.
Well, you don't come across as particularly innocent in your comics...
I guess not. I mostly mean innocent in terms of process and motivation. Honesty and openness is innocence. Trying to trick people into thinking I'm smart so they'll buy my shit and love me is not. Or maybe it is.... I don't know. It's confusing. It's tough to reconcile these base impulses I'm constantly having with my image of myself as a naive cherub. I think it's got a lot to do with the company I've been keeping. I'm a really impressionable person. I think everybody is. It's always hard to break away from what appears to be the societal norm, even when mimicking the norm makes you miserable and alienated.
That's why that trip to North Carolina was so refreshing. I have a lot of respect for the values of the community down there. Just that change of scenery/company effected a change in my behaviour and perception almost immediately. It was really reassuring.
Given that you think you need something looming over you to make you produce work, have you taken any steps to acquire a mentor or a regular deadline that would achieve this?
No. I'm looking in another direction now. I hope to find something that I can love enough to work on consistently without having to beat myself up about and trick myself to do it. Or maybe some place that rekindles the love I used to have for my work and self.
You've got a background working in animation, right? Is it fair to ask which came first - the comics or the animation work? How does one influence the other?
I've done some work for Spumco, but it's all been character and concept design stuff. No actual animation. None of my animation concept work has ever seen the light of day. It's mostly been unsuccessful pitches for T.V. series that I've helped develop, along with my pals Chris McDonnell and Brandon Graham (who has a big collection of his sci-fi comics coming out through Alternative Comics in a few months). Some of these pitches still have a little life in 'em, last I heard - but the odds aren't good with this sort of thing. It's kinda like buying lottery tickets.
I did some in-betweening work for Bill Plympton for about a year, right after I graduated. For those who don't know what in-betweening is: Bill would draw a scene, which would be a big stack of numbered drawings. The numbers though were usually something like: 1,2,3,5,7,9,11,13,14,15,17,19,etc. Then I would go in and make additional drawings to fill in the sequence by superimposing on a light box the drawings that the new one would go between, (7 and 9, for example, if I was drawing 8) and then coming up with something halfway between. This smooths out the transition between drawings, and makes the animation look a lot smoother and less choppy when you watch it.
So I did make many many drawings that appear in a movie, but it always felt more like math or something, than animation. It was very technical. Most of my brainpower with that job was devoted to guessing the exact median between two given lines, and coming up with tricks to make my lines look as much like Bill's as possible, which I was good at. I would also delineate where shadows were going to be painted, but that was pretty much the same story, brainpower-wise.
I did make a handful of animation experiments at school, and I've been playing around with Flash and animated GIFs recently (the results of which are all up on my website), but it's not something that's "in my blood" or anything like that. I don't think it's had any effect on my comics work, which, to answer your question, technically came second, since the first actual comic strip I drew was in my sophomore year at college. But there were a lot of youthful precursors.
So you studied animation before working in the field, yeah?
Yeah, for my freshman and sophomore years I studied animation. It was fun for the first year, cause we got to mess around and try lots of new things. I had a lot of fun making short looping animations (which is what I started doing again recently on the computer), but for the sophomore curriculum we had to spend the entire year working on one short film, which you can probably guess, didn't really jive with my sensibilities. So I went to class every week and just sat there doodling and bothering people for 6 hours. And then I made a little film in the last couple of weeks of class. And then I changed my major to cartooning, mostly because I could take a lot of figure drawing classes. Figure drawing was my biggest passion for most of my college career, thanks in big part to James McMullan, who I recommend as an instructor to anyone attending SVA [The School of Visual Arts]. Figure drawing was one of the best paths I've ever had for real honest spontaneous expression. I lost the fire, though, after I graduated.
Which Plympton movie was it that you worked on? Are you a fan of Plympton's work? I ask mainly because I can kind of see some of the unsettling cartoony style of violence that you talked about before in Plympton's cartoons...
When I was an animation major in my sophomore year at the School of Visual Arts we had a little gallery-type show of conceptual display boards for imaginary animated films. Bill (who has some affiliation with SVA, I think) saw my piece there and got in contact with me. From that I ended up working on Mutant Aliens for the last couple of months of production. I was just delineating shadow perimeters and adding lots of those little texture marks that are part of Bill's signature style. A couple of years later, right when I was graduating, I got work as an in-betweener/shadower on Hair High, which may or may not be out right now. I'm not sure. I did that for about a year before I got laid off when money was tight.
I'm still a big fan of Bill's older short films. I think he stretches himself too thin to make his features. It's really a superhuman feat.
What happened to the youthful precursor comics that you mentioned?
The biggest precursor actually inspired the title for Gongwanadon. My twin brother and I, when we were really young, maybe eight years old, started this massive epic about all the battles and wars and espionage and torture going on between dozens of alien races and planets. There were hundreds of characters (one of whom was Gonfonadon which I misremembered as Gongwanadon when titling the two-part ode to this epic that appears in the comic book of the same name) and it was probably around 500 pages. But it wasn't in conventional comics form. It was one wordless tableau per page. And one storyline would frequently skip back and forth between different notebooks. I think only my brother and I would be able to decipher it. It was extremely violent. Incredibly bloody and gory. I'm amazed sometimes. It was never evil or angry or scary, though. It was just fun and exciting and unselfconscious. We took glee in inventing really cool ways for people to die. It was totally divorced from reality. The only part that I can remember making me uncomfortable (then and now) is one sequence, towards the end of our run, when we tried to add some pathos regarding the death of a few characters. It was really awkward and melodramatic and fake, and makes me cringe to think about it even as I type this.
Cusp and Gongwanadon are out now through Alternative Press. Or Pre-Order both books from the January Previews Catalogue, just give your retailer the Order Codes JAN05 2412 for Cusp and Order Code JAN05 2413 for Gongwanadon. Thomas Herpich's web site is thomasherpich.com.
Trapped in a world he didn't make, Adam Ford struggles from day to day to find the one-armed man, to produce zines as cheaply as possible, to meet at least 80 per cent of his deadlines and to get seven hours sleep every night. He lives in Melbourne, Australia and welcomes all correspondence, though he will deny knowing anything about quantum mechanics. He also writes poetry, novels and CD reviews and maintains an infrequently updated website. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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