Sammy Harkham is best known as the mover and primary editorial force behind “Kramer’s Ergot,” the seminal alt-comics publication regarded as one of the most influential anthologies of the past decade, not only for a roster of contributors that includes folks such as Mat Brinkman, Chris Ware and Gabrielle Bell, but also for a willingness to experiment with the format and size, perhaps best illustrated by the release of the extra-large Vol. 7.
But in addition to his editorial duties, Harkham is a notable cartoonist in his own right, producing funny, smart, dense comics, not only in “Kramer’s” but also in his occasional one-man anthology series “Crickets” as well as “Drawn & Quarterly Showcase.”
Now, Picturebox Books has released Harkham’s first major solo project, “Everything Together.” As the title suggests, “Everything” collects just about all of Harkham’s short stories from the past ten years, including noteworthy pieces “Poor Sailor” and “Somersaulting.” We spoke with Harkham about the new book, the dangers of working in autobiography and the future of “Kramer’s Ergot.”
CBR News: The name of your new book is “Everything Together,” but I noticed there were a few stories you didn’t include.
Sammy Harkham: Like what?
The golem story from “Crickets” for one thing.
That’s not finished. I hope to get back to that story. I did two chapters of that, and then when I was doing “Crickets” #3, I thought “Blood of the Virgin” would be half and “Black Death” would be the second half of the issue, but “Blood of the Virgin” [a short story not included in “Everything Together”] just kept growing. The issue was already 48 pages, which is the limit for a comic book, I think. It was already oversized and expensive, so I couldn’t really make it longer. And it had already taken a while to get the issue done, so I just thought we’ll have “Blood of the Virgin” be the main story and I’ll get back to “Black Death” eventually. Hopefully I will. Do you do any fiction writing?
You once did at one time?
A long, long time ago.
[Laughs] Well, the best advice I ever got about writing was to work on the story every day. Even if it’s deleting a comma or adding one word or adding one sentence. Don’t be concerned with being prolific or taking too long, but make sure it’s always on your mind by interacting with what you have.
I haven’t touched that story in a long time, but in my mind, I’m like, “Oh, yeah — I should get into it eventually, once my other long story is finished, and not leave it undone.” I’m a big Chester Brown fan and he’s been this huge influence on my work, but I don’t need to [adopt his manner of] letting things die on the vine.
It’s not your “Gospel” series, in other words.
Hopefully not, though who knows? Maybe that’s all I’ve got to say. But I think the potential is to do a great manga-esque adventure story, and that’s exciting. That’s why that comic, if you look at the first issue [of “Crickets”], it’s a six-panel grid. My preference is to make stuff denser, like in “Blood of the Virgin.” Have at least four tiers on a page, unless it’s a unique page. With “Black Death” it’s kept a three tier, six-panel grid for the most part. With three tiers, you’re going to plow through the page. Keep it light and just make it heavy on physical movement. I think I’ve done 40 or 50 pages of “Black Death,” but nothing’s happened. [Laughter] Which, again, is like 120 pages of manga.
It’s all setting.
Yeah, and for my other work I like to make it really dense so even though it’s a one-page strip, I can hopefully mine it for more, like it’s a short story. But this is the reverse: I’m going to do 120 pages of two guys having a knife fight. I’ve had this thing — there are these two issues of “Punisher War Journal” from about 1991 or ’92. The way I remember it is, there’s no words; it’s just the Punisher running across the rooftops and he falls through a skylight and ends up in a fight club for criminals. So he has to fight 300 criminals by himself, barehanded. It’s two issues of just him fighting. Reading comics like that is really enjoyable. This is sort of my idea of that.
One of the things about comics is that if someone can cartoon well — not draw well, but cartoon well — anything is a novelty. Anything. Any sort of genre idea, any sort of emotional idea, no matter how many times you’ve seen it in a book or a movie, just seeing it cartooned well has a certain enjoyability factor. When Robert Crumb or Chester Brown does a new comic, I don’t even care if it’s good or bad as far as how it’s written, because the cartooning is on a level where it’s just fun to be immersed in it. Johnny Ryan took the idea behind “Black Death” and really ran with it — the idea of taking 120 pages of a knife fight. Reading “Prison Pit,” you realize how much of what’s enjoyable about comics is watching cause and effect endlessly [playing out]. All comics have that [element], it’s just how much do you want to mine that and bring it to the front. So maybe “Black Death” will keep going on, maybe not. We’ll see.
Along the same lines, do you see “Crickets” continuing?
That’s a good question, ’cause I’ve started to doubt some of the thinking that was going into doing a series. I’m working on “Crickets” #4, but a part of me is starting to wonder if it’s completely self-indulgent and if being self-indulgent is a bad thing. I don’t know. It feels like the idea of doing a comic book series is a very useless thing to do. I love comic books and I love magazines; that’s a big reason why I like to make them myself. That’s why “Crickets” is the size that it is. But I don’t know if it’s the best way for other people to experience the work. For the foreseeable future, I will be doing issue #4 which will hopefully come out early next year. That’s the plan.
You put “Crickets” #3 out yourself, right?
Right, and it was distributed through Fantagraphics, which was great. They have such good relationships with retailers because of “Print Valiant” and the reprint stuff they do. Orders were really good because of that. “Oh, if it’s through Fantagraphics, we automatically order three copies.”
I don’t know how I’m going to do #4. I might self-publish it, but you’ve got to pull together some money to do that and I don’t know if I’ll have the money at the time. We’ll see.
Did collecting the material in “Everything Together” afford you a chance to reflect on your work at all?
The only time I look at my work with any sort of clarity is when I stumble on it by accident. Yesterday, I was putting on a record and I completely forgot that I had done artwork for this record. It felt like I was looking at someone else’s work.
With the comics, it’s always such a mixed bag of feeling. The thing that strikes me is how different I was as a person. I recognize this person in some ways and in some ways I don’t relate to this cartoonist at all. And that creates all these other issues of how to design a book for a cartoonist you’re not that familiar with. I guess “Poor Sailor” is about ten years old? I did that when I was 22, and I’m 32 now. I think I was a little more hopeful as a person then. I was a lot less angry. I believed in things. I feel like all that’s pretty much gone. If anything now I just try to fight becoming an angry, bitter person, which is really hard in comics.
Is that because of the nature of the industry and the effort it takes to get your work out there?
No, I feel like I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve got a nice audience that I always appreciate. But it’s hard to make a living when you have a family. It’s easier if you’re single. Basically, [making comics] is a hobby. That’s the reality. You’re not paying your bills with it. You can call it many things but what it is a hobby, at least to your father-in-law. That’s frustrating as I get older, but what can you do? It could be much worse.
But to answer your question: It was fun to look at the work, but I didn’t really relate to a lot of it anymore.
If comics is your hobby, what’s your day job?
I co-own a bookstore, Family, with my friend David Kramer. I do all kinds of odds and ends. Right now I’m curating a show for this big Halloween festival. You keep your fingers in a lot of different things. You do all the normal things a cartoonist is associated with like illustration. I do as much of that as possible, but it’s not consistent work. It’s hard to know if I’m going to have money coming in every single week. With illustration you can have great months and terrible months.
I just do whatever people want to hire me to do.
I wanted to ask you about the short story “Somersaulting.” It takes place in Australia, and I know you grew up in South Australia. I was wondering how much in that story reflects your own youth.
When I started working on the story, I knew I wanted to do something about this kid and it felt like the only way to approach it was to not make the main characters male. All of a sudden, it wouldn’t be completely autobiographical. It could be autobiographical in feeling and tone. My time in Australia was in a much bigger city than where the story takes place. I think all good fiction is basically 95 percent autobiographical. While I can’t think of any parts that are truly autobiographical, it feels very honest. It feels like an honest story.
By the same token, in the “Lubovich” story, the main character’s name is Harkham. Is this an attempt to imagine you in a different time or is this based on family members?
That story is pretty autobiographical. I was inspired by Robert Crumb’s “Cave Wimp” comic. I remember thinking how great this was because [it reflects] Crumb’s neurosis and concerns and sense of humor, but by setting it in a different time and place, it was a new way of looking at these things. I remember wanting to do something about Hassidic Judaism, but not knowing how to do it. Seeing that strip it became really clear: You could talk about being Jewish in a way that’s honest but also funny.
The thing I always battle with about autobiography is that you are the protagonist. You don’t want sympathy for yourself. You don’t want the reader to go, “Oh, this poor guy.” “Yeah, my life it’s so difficult, things are so hard for me and I just want people to read about me and feel bad for me and see what a good and sensitive person I am.” That’s the thing you want to fight against. By making it explicitly autobiographical, but setting it in a different time and place, it was inherently funny. Hopefully it’s funny. You’re taking the piss out of the whole thing anyway.
That strip grew organically. I just started drawing it. I had just finished “Crickets” #1 and was all fired up from drawing comics, so I quickly drew the first three pages. I didn’t know where it was going or what it was for. I haven’t read that strip in a long time. I didn’t read it when editing the book, but I liked working on that story.
Do you consider yourself a religious person? And does that consciously affect the kind of comics you produce?
It’s hard, because I don’t know how to define “religious.” I’m not really that much of an observant Jew, these days. I got into it for about ten years, and then once I had children, all the external restrictions and external structure I was putting on my life seemed less necessary. Because now I really had real limitations and real structure I had to adhere to. The need to get up at five in the morning and have a ritual bath and meditate for an hour and do all this stuff just to start my day became less necessary.
Even though I’m not observant these days, I have no negative feeling about [religion]. It was a good period in my life. I’m just not there right now. I think [my work] was definitely informed by that. That’s why on the cover it says, “Did You believe in God once?” No matter what happens in those stories, I feel like almost all of them have a little bit of hope. They have a positive feeling. I don’t know if the work I’m doing now has that.
On a completely different note, I was wondering who the main character in “The New Yorker Story” was based on.
Who did you think I was basing it on?
At first I thought it was Ogden Nash, because I know he wrote for The New Yorker, but it didn’t seem to fit. I was wondering if it was a game, where you wanted the reader to do some research —
No, not at all. It’s not based on anybody. It’s fiction.
The title is what threw me.
It made sense to title it that because this guy is trying to finish this New Yorker story. Or a story that he’s hoping The New Yorker would take. I also thought it was playing in that sandbox of the usual things you see in a New Yorker story — infidelity and midlife crisis, the kind of fiction that is stereotypically in the New Yorker. It had a double meaning.
The book collects a number of true, humorous stories featuring cartoonists like James Sturm and Gary Panter. Did any of those get you into any trouble?
No, I showed them to people. Often a lot of those comics are drawn as warm-up strips. You don’t have to do much thinking and there’s a gag. When you’ve taken a long break from working on comics, I just need to work, I just need to [draw] something. Often it’s these autobio gags. I ran it by people, and they told me their thoughts. Again, with autobiography, I try to not make myself a victim, so if I’m making fun of my friends, hopefully I’m also making fun of myself. Nobody’s getting out of this scott free, including me.
I think they’re goofy strips. I didn’t know if I was going to include any of that stuff. If you had asked me a year ago, I would have said no, because “Everything Together” is going to be sold in bookstores and I don’t know if [those readers] are going to get any of those inside-baseball jokes. But they’re kind of funny and they fill out the book nicely and break up the longer stories. It’s hard for me to qualify my work, especially stuff like that. Every decision you make when editing and designing your own book, you’re just like, “I guess this is OK.” It’s easier when you’re editing someone else because you can bring your enthusiasm for that person.
It seems like in a lot of the stories, especially the gag strips, there’s a certain amount of demystification or knocking established figures, like Napoleon, down a peg. Even in “Poor Sailor,” you’ve got this romantic vision of the sea that all goes to hell. I wondered if that’s at all conscious on your part.
When I start writing a story, I think of setting. There are these archetypes you can work with when writing any sort of fiction, and you can have the world the story takes place in be a comment on the narrative itself. You want the world to enforce or clash with certain ideas. I don’t feel like that’s unique in comics or in writing in general.
Sometimes I’ll pick up a French comic that looks like a Western and flip through it and there’s a shoot-out and a train robbery and there’s no character development. They’re just playing with type, with the cliches. I try not to do that. I try to come up with a story, and come up with some sort of conflict and, while that’s happening, think about where that is taking place.
The great thing about comics is you can set a story anywhere. With “The New Yorker Story,” I was asked to do that comic by Vice magazine. Nick Gazin was the person I was dealing with, and I said to Nick, “Why don’t you send me a list of things you want to see in a story.” And he did. He said, “I like stories that take place on college campuses,” and he even mentioned the time frame. I started thinking about white intellectuals and what that meant almost 30 years ago. What is that [type of] person and how would they come off to someone today? Those differences can be fun to play with. You can play with expectations. If you’re writing a character from the ’50s, you can casually have them be racist. You don’t even need to deal with it if you don’t want to, which I think is interesting. You can throw out these things and show how people are the same and how they’re different and I think it makes for a more interesting story with a little more tension.
How has being an editor affected you as a cartoonist? Has it made you a better cartoonist?
Probably. I think just by dealing with other people’s work so closely. The only way I can edit somebody’s work is if I feel very close to it. Because I’m a cartoonist, I’m attracted to the work that is close to similar concerns I have and the kind of work I want to make. It’s less that it’s made me a better cartoonist, because that’s such a hard thing to gauge, but it’s definitely inspired me.
On the most basic level, editing an anthology is a way of curating your own reality of what an anthology should be, what it can be. With the last volume, a large part of it was to imagine a world where “Kramer’s” isn’t a novelty but a very normal thing and one of many books like this. If I get depressed about comics, making an anthology is like living in this pretend land, where it’s like, “No, comics can be this.”
Were you happy with how the last “Kramer’s” was received? It seems like a lot of people were scratching their heads over it.
Yeah, but I feel like they always are. It’s funny, because if you go by numbers, it sells well. From issue four on, it’s never been a failure in that way. It’s always sold well. For the vast majority of readers, it’s something they want. What you read online isn’t necessarily a gauge of how the majority of readers are responding to a work. It’s hard to gauge something like that.
Every time I read a review of any kind, I always think of it as a particular person’s take on a book, not a census take on a book. If I read a random review of a movie, it doesn’t push me to see or not see that film. Negative or mixed reviews of “Kramer’s” are always there. In issue four, it was over the Billy Grant collages. People don’t like that at all. In issue six, I remember reading a negative review because we included Chris Ware. With every issue, there are always people unhappy about it.
I think the one thing by having an ongoing series is people bring a lot of baggage and expectations to each thing. You can play to that and make everything a response or play to what people want. I try not to do either. “Kramer’s” 8 isn’t the size that it is because “Kramer’s” 7 was large. There’s more drastic ways of doing that. I could make it a 24-page newsprint comic book and charge a dollar. Or I could make you a poster. But that’s a really limited way of thinking. Each issue of “Kramer’s” is the book that I want to see that year. Hopefully I’ll keep doing “Kramer’s” for a long time. It doesn’t come out regularly, so hopefully over the course of my life I’ll be doing them every once in a while. If anything, they track my interests and how those interests change.
I’m very, very happy with “Kramer’s” 8. I think it’s an amazing book with great stuff. Of course, as an editor, you always want it to be better. But the reason I think it could be better aren’t being echoed in the negative reviews. To make it better wouldn’t mean cutting “Oh Wicked Wanda.”
It’s funny you mentioned that. That was the one part, where I was wondering why you included that.
If people come with expectations of what they want and what they expect from “Kramer’s,” as opposed to what they expect an old issue of “Heavy Metal” or an old issue of “Garo,” then there are going to be issues with some of that. My take on “Kramer’s” is not like someone reading it. Maybe it’s a curve ball, but I really didn’t look at it that way, because I don’t look at “Kramer’s” as something where it’s only this type of thing. If people don’t like the art of “Oh Wicked Wanda,” and they don’t like the writing and they’re taking it on its own thing, that’s a shame, but that’s always been the case with any anthology. There’s always one thing that people normally don’t like.
So it’s not meant to be ironic —
No. Why would I do that? Again, you could do that so much better. If you want to just run garbage because you think it’s interesting in an ironic way, there’s more interesting garbage.
For me, I tried to separate [“Wanda”] from the body of the material. If it feels like it’s part of the main body of the book, then maybe that’s a fault of mine. I love this work, but obviously but I don’t want to try to suggest that the intellectual and artistic concerns of a guy working at Penthouse at a great page rate and for a commercial audience shared the same concerns and values as a guy who does minicomics and sells them at SPX. Because I think that’s shaky ground. In some ways, Jack Kirby and I have similarities; in other ways, we’re approaching this stuff in a very different way. I want [“the “Wanda” material] to feel separate, but I wanted to include it because I liked it. That was biggest concern was how to include it, not should I include it.
So you are planning on doing more “Kramer’s” down the road.
Yeah. I’ve contacted a couple cartoonists to give them a heads-up, but I really want to finish the current strip I’m working on. My time is limited because of family and work stuff. I have a certain amount of time that I can work on these projects that make no money. For now, that should be my own comics. Hopefully another [volume] will come out in the next 2-3 years. I have an idea of how to approach it and I’m excited about it and there’s a bunch of cartoonists I’m excited about working with. We’ll see. Every time I do a new issue, people are mad that it wasn’t the previous issue. If you want “Kramer’s Ergot” 4, then just go read “Kramer’s Ergot” 4. If you’re upset that Mat Brinkman is not in “Kramer’s Ergot” 8, then just go read some Mat Brinkman comics.
If I wanted to do a “Kramer’s” 4 again, I could do it. That would be easy. But what’s the point? I don’t see the point. Everyone else is doing that anyway. There are so many books that feel like that book.
It’s a funny thing thinking about criticism and readers. I’m not concerned with it. You can’t please everybody. If you want to gauge it by anything — and even this isn’t a gauge — look at the enthusiasm of the readers you have, and if the books sell.