The big one I'm wondering about (as you can probably guess) is why, after all these years at the PN, did you decide to make the change to the Houston Press (who aren't exactly known for their "alternative"-ness)?
Scott: They made me a better offer, and the Public News hadn't been treating me too well. In fact, the PN had censored one of my strips in fear that it would offend one of their major advertisers (Camel Cigarettes). Houston Press's circulation is tons larger, too, so that could only improve things for me.
Was it mostly that one incident, or was it more like that was the last straw, or something?
Scott: It wasn't the last straw, but their overall attitude towards my work, their lack of respect for me as an artist, and their singular focus on putting money in the publisher's pocket was what helped me make the decision to leave. At the PN, there is definitely a prejudice against cartoonists. A hierarchy of importance exists in regard to contributors, on which "writers" rank quite high and cartoonists rank at the very bottom.
The situation was an absurd reemphasis of the prejudice against comics in society in general, the idea that comics are just fluff, silly entertainment for kids and not a legitimate art form. At the Houston Press, this prejudice still exists, of course, but not to the absurd extremity it does at the PN. And in fact, the managing editor of the Press has a great deal of respect for comics and cartoonists, which is one of the things that made my decision to move a lot easier.
How did the transition go? Have you gotten any feedback from folks about the move?
Scott: I've heard from a lot of people who used to read me in PN (all positive feedback), but haven't gotten anything from new readers in the Press. I never really get any paper mail -- just email from readers, so some of the more vocal readers are probably reading the strip over the Web.
Were you worried at all? I mean, the Press and the PN seem to reach two very different audiences; obviously, the overlap some, but I'm sure there are a lot of people who read the Press that don't read the PN, and vice versa. Did you ever get worried that you might lose a good number of your fans?
Scott: You can generally pick up a copy of the Press wherever you can get the PN, so I don't think I lost any but the most casual of fans. The circulation of the Press is so much higher than that of the PN that the gain definitely makes any slight loss of readers I might have incurred pretty negligible. My strip is being read by a ton of people who might never have seen it before, and is, of course, still quite readily available to those who have read it in the past. That satisfies me.
[Addendum: The Death of the Public News this Summer also satisfies me. My timing was good (in that I switched papers a year before the PN went down), and the ridiculous economic failure of the PN vindicates my bad feelings about that paper's publishers. Like Mario Puzo said, "Fools Die."]
For a more basic art-type question: who would you say are your biggest influences/idols/etc.? Is there anybody whose style you think you've emulated (at least when you started)?
Scott: Cartoonists: Russ Heath, Alex Toth, Gil Kane, John Severin, The Hernandez Brothers, Gilbert Shelton, Carl Barks, Spain, Harvey Pekar, Frank Stack, Jim Woodring, Carol Tyler, Justin Green, Jack Jackson, Roy Crane, Herge, Paolo Baciliero, Richard Corben, Moebius, and an infinite number of others.
Authors: Joseph Conrad, Russell Banks, Bukowski, Chandler, Melville, Poe, Twain, Wallace Stegner, Barry Gifford, Raymond Carver, Jim Harrison, Tobias Wolfe, and many others.
Film-makers: Scorsese, Hitchcock, Truffaut, Kubrick, Coppola, George Romero (early stuff), David Lynch, etc., etc.
Painters: Goya, Degas, Phillip Guston, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Manet, & others.
Seen any cool comic-type stuff lately?
Scott: Not a whole lot. There's tons of great stuff coming out of Europe -- everything from the L'Association group is terrific. Especial European favorites are Blutch, Baudoin, Gotting, and a bunch of other cartoonists your readers have never heard of and probably never will. Decent American stuff lately: Artbabe by Jessica Abel, anything published by Black Eye Press, Poot by Walt Holcombe, Top Shelf, Underwater by Chester Brown, Palookaville by Seth, the "Robotman" comic strip, and Kaz's weekly comic strip "Underworld" viewable on the Web at http://www.word.com (and in NYC in the New York Press).
It kind of surprises me to see "Robotman" thrown in the middle there, with all these ultra-indie comics; any particular reason? It usually seems to me to be a slightly-weirder "Dilbert," really...
Scott: That's a matter of personal taste, but I think R-man is a FUCK of a lot funnier and more edgy than Dilbert. Like Bill (Zippy the Pinhead) Griffith says, Dilbert is just "chuckling in the grey cubicles." Brr.
Where d'you get a hold of all this European stuff, by the way? Is there any place around here where I can buy any of that? I have to admit, I've never even heard of any of those before (Palookaville rocks, though, and I keep meaning to read Artbabe...).
Scott: The best way to get Euro stuff is to know people who travel to Europe and can bring it back for you. However, there are mail-order sources (for example, La Mouette Rieuse in Montreal who have a toll free phone number you can call to order a catalog, 1-888-603-3883, and an email address through which you can request a catalog: email@example.com). Also, I encourage all your comics-interested readers to rush to their local comics store and demand that they order A Suivre..., the great French anthology comic, which is available through the big American monster distributor, Diamond, which distributes all American comics. None of the French comics are inexpensive, unfortunately, but you get what you pay for: high quality comics. Artbabe is available at any comics shop in the U.S. for only $2.95 an issue, and EVERYBODY should read it. Jessica Abel is a good friend of mine, and I am very proud of her stuff. She's one of the only people in comics who is doing stuff almost exactly like what I want to do. She's also carrying on the wonderful real-life tradition of Harvey Pekar, but through the point of view of a hip, female 24-year old. She's the bomb, it's just that simple: stop cheating yourselves and read Artbabe.
You've always seemed to be somewhat of an outsider to the comic industry; how do you see yourself in relation to people who draw for the big companies, like Marvel or DC, or even the smaller, more independent groups like Dark Horse?
Scott: I'm an outsider because the "industry" (in the United States) is a cancerous body, involved in producing the pictorial narrative equivalent of crack. I am an artist, primarily. My medium happens to be comics, and I will not produce comics except to fulfil my needs and ambitions as an artist.
So, do you think the industry should die, or what?
Scott: The industry is self-destructing. Nobody wants to read the kind of things being produced now in the mainstream (grotesque video-game influenced superheroes and movie-tie-ins almost exclusively), so fewer and fewer people are buying comics. Kids are not buying comics, so the next generation of new readers and consumers will not exist, and the industry will go down hard.
Hmm. I've noticed something lately, the last few times I've gone to the comic store: more and more formerly totally independent comics seem to be heading for the majors -- and a lot of these "superheroes only" comic companies are letting them in, amazingly enough. Dark Horse is doing Hellboy, Matt Wagner's Mage is now on Image, as is Jeff Smith's Bone, and I keep noticing more and more "indie" comics popping up like that with a big-name logo on them. (Granted, though, I have yet to see a formerly-independent comic appear with a Marvel or DC logo...) What do you think of this? Is the industry just trying to cash in, or do you think that maybe they, like yourself, think that the industry as a whole is in big trouble?
Scott: Hellboy and Mage are superhero comics, and are in no way "alternative" and Bone is no longer with Image (Smith's gone back to self-publishing). I think that DC is making very infinitismal moves towards indie stuff, due to the problems in the industry (and the great success of their semi-alternative Vertigo line). Dark Horse is dead in the water, and just lost their most alternative friendly editor, Bob Schreck, who is starting his very own company. Marvel is run by fools and corporate traders, however, and they've made no intelligent moves in the past 30 years. That's why they are bankrupt, after all.
And more generally, what's causing all this? Is it just blindness on the part of the big comic companies, do you think?
Scott: I think its a blindness caused the general winner-take-all attitude in society right now, which drives the corporate traders to squeeze the maximum profit from companies, even if it kills those companies. The corporate types who own Marvel and DC, and the smaller versions who own Dark Horse look upon them primarily not as comic book producers, but as sources of new merchandising "properties," wellsprings for possible giant profit movies, toys, and TV shows. The "art" of comics is a concept that is completely lost upon them, but even the importance of even producing books is slipping away from them.
Cartoonists like myself live, work, and distribute our comics outside of the mainstream because that's where we'd rather be, and because we produce comics that actually do appeal to people, that do speak to something besides juvenile power fantasies. Our audience is adults, mainly, so our place in the market is shaky, too. Thanks to the overwhelming influence of other mediums, electronic and broadcast, comics are dying a long death.
[Addendum: My forecast for the comic industry is rolling right along. There's only one major distributor left, Diamond, and it is beginning to constrict things badly. Image Comics busted into a bunch of subsidiaries, of which the largest, Wildstorm, has just been bought out by DC. DC is showing a lot of smarts by slowly moving into progressive, independent territory, but it may be too late.]
Also, since the comics industry is so absolutely fucked, what other options are available to comic artists like yourself? Is it possible to make a living doing this stuff?
Scott: No, not really. I only know of a couple of cartoonists who do nothing but comics, but they are young, single guys who live on ramen noodles. Everybody else has to keep the day job or fill in with commercial art work (illustration, graphic design, even mainstream comix work -- Jim Woodring has scripted a couple of Dark Horse Aliens movie comix and did a lot of design work for Microsoft).
I don't know a whole lot about the non-mainstream comics "scene" (or whatever), so I don't really know what exactly independent artists' goals are, y'know? What do you, for an example, aspire to? How would you measure success in your medium?
Scott: Every individual cartoonist sets their own measure of success, really. I think the better ones are most satisfied by creating good work, progressively better and better work, closer and closer to their personal ideal. Satisfaction comes from the work itself, which is good, because there's nowhere else it'll be coming from. Nobody is in comics for the money: we all do it because we LOVE DOING COMICS. It's that simple.
Your strips seem to have a close relation to music, a lot of the time; what've you been listening to lately?
Scott: I like music as an artist: I admire it's qualities and the formal elements musicians work with because they are similar to those I work with as a cartoonist. I also enjoy music as a social force, as with early punk and rap. Currently, unfortunately, NO music is active a positive force for social change (and no, techno and ambient music does not fit that bill, no matter how much they tell us it does). Rock is long dead: not just a corpse, socially, but a dried-up mummy. Corporate capitalism has the hammer down on everything and everybody, and we are utterly its slaves.
So, to kill time lately I've been listening to Can, Juno Reactor, System 7, Chemical Brothers, Helmet, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Elvis Costello, Cibo Mato, Fila Brasilia, and others, and am hoping that Sonic Youth will release another decent album someday. I have a suspicion that country and rap still have another set of genuine personal power in them, and will produce more musicians who can beat the industrial mindset. Rock boys and girls, though, no, they're just ghosts in the machine.
Okay, now, while I'll agree that 99.9% of rock music is pure, unadulterated shite, I think that there's still some value to it. It somehow appeals to me, even if there's no "message" behind it. Does music have to have a political message for it to be worth listening to?
Scott: I didn't say it shouldn't exist, or shouldn't be listened to. What I'm saying is that rock & pop has NO POWER to revolt and resist against the status quo any more. It used to have that power, but now it has capitulated completely to corporate consumer capitalism. If you really like meaningless music, purposeless, ridiculous, bright, shiny music then you should be deliriously happy right now. You're welcome to it, but I personally would enjoy a different situation.
Where does the inspiration for your strips come from? I can see where a lot of the autobiographical stuff comes from, obviously, but there's quite a bit of "other" in there that makes me shake my head and go "where the hell did he think THAT up?"
Scott: Hahahahaha. I wish I knew where my inspiration comes from-- I'd be hanging out there a lot more often. Like the old saying says, invention is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration -- I have to pound and cajole my ideas into being with great effort, in most cases. I guess my ideas just mostly come from my life, trying to view my environment, society, and culture with some objectivity. At the same time, I'm plumbing my own subjectivity, trying to understand my reactions to these same elements of life.
Got any plans for further down the road? Do you think you'll be doing comics (and the Tales strip, in particular) forever, or do you think you'll maybe eventually move on to something else?
Scott: Yes, the True Artist Tales Reich will last a thousand years. Shit, I don't know. I'm going to try and grab every possible opportunity, just like anybody else. TAT allows me certain benefits in terms of practice and exposure that I hope I can continue to perpetuate for the foreseeable future. I AM going to try and put out some longer stories (like Mysterioso, which actually originally was serialized in TAT) and get a publisher like Fantagraphics to put them out as a regular comic book format series.
[Addendum: One bit of good news I've gotten is that my comic novella, printed last year as a minicomic (and previously run in the weekly strip in during the Summer and Fall of 1996), Mysterioso will be republished in a brand new comics anthology/media magazine from mid-level publisher Kitchen Sink comics. Cryptically titled Mona, this magazine will be a monthly, full of long, COMPLETE, non-serialized comic stories, plus articles on music, film, video, other junk culture. By February of 1999, you will see Mona and Mysterioso at newsstands and comic shops everywhere. Mona is Kitchen Sink's attempt to broaden comics' market by presenting them in a broader context.]
Since it's a topic real close to my heart: what do you think of the current music scene here in Houston?
Scott: I like the music scene in Houston because things are so tough here that there's no room for people to get pretentious or over-hyped. The music scene is very similar to the art scene -- nobody over the age of 30 can understand why anybody would do anything that doesn't strictly involve making money. The difference is that all classes of people are represented in the music scene -- it's a popular art form that allows for spontaneity and youthful energy. Unfortunately, however, most of the music here follows popular national trends, and becomes a sort of unvarying sonic oatmeal. There aren't many bands that stand out as truly unique or inventive here in town -- we don't have any Glass Eyes or Universal Congress Ofs, just lots and lots of guitar rockers who pay little attention to song structure.
I miss Three Day Stubble, Toho Ehio, the Painteens, Joint Chiefs and early Beat Temple. I miss the Axiom a lot -- everything's a bit more pinched and conservative now that the Axiom is gone. Mary Jane's is cool, but it just feels kind of pinched -- definitely too many cops around. Bands I like now are Sad Pygmy, Middlefinger, Jinkies, Aftershock, and Peglegasus. Horseshoe are pretty adorable, for a cover band (I fondly remember trading plaintive cries of "cornhole!" with the lead singer at Rudz). I adore Rusted Shut (definitely the most phenomenal, interesting band in town), and am looking very favorably on I-45 (one of the more unique acts to show up in a while, even if they are stealing from the Beasties in a big way). I also love the jazz (Harry Shepard fuckin' rools) and noise stuff that goes on here in town. The noise stuff is amazing, because it's so incongruous to the usual rock and roll scene, but so appropriate to the physical environment -- the Pygmy's alter ego Rotten Piece, Richard Ramirez, all the folks on the fantastic Manifestation compilations are great.
I love it when worlds collide here, like they did in Kevin Jackson's great "Pizza Boy" opera at the Zocalo Theater a couple of years ago. That involved art people, theater people, dance people (!), and music people of all types and was a terrific show. More crazy collision shit should go on in this town -- people should loosen up and touch base with each other more often. There should be many more rock acts at the Orange Show, for example.
How did you get started doing the True Artist Tales strip? Did you just suddenly decide "hey, I'll do a comic!"? I'm guessing it was a lot more gradual, but you never know...
Scott: Stupidly enough it started as a "class project." When I was in graduate painting school at UH, I took a "directed study" course with Derek Boshier, and was able to set up doing the strip and getting it printed as the actual curriculum of the course. Derek would critique my work both in aesthetic terms and in terms of commercial success. Fortunately, at that time (1987) Jane Ludlam was the editor of the Public News (the last real, professional editor they have had -- Jane now edits Poetry magazine in NY, the big academic journal for poetry in the U.S), and she recognized and respected my stuff as real artwork. If I took the strip in there today, cold, with the mulletheads who are running it now, things might turn out differently. In any case, I had been painting, but had always enjoyed comics, and knew that someday I'd put some comics together on a regular basis. I wanted to combine my basic love of the form with what I had learned about art in college and as a painter.
Was there a particular event, person, whatever that initially inspired you to get into art?
Scott: No. My parents were always very supportive. I just always read comics and liked to do and study art. My interests just got more and more serious as time went by, and my folks always encouraged me follow them. And then there were those gamma rays...
And my friend Chris asks: have you ever used the line "hey, baby, I draw a comic strip" to pick up women?
Scott: Oh, yeah. Works like a charm. Actually, I find that holding a hundred dollar bill in my teeth works a lot better. Or parting my hair with my tongue. END