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Zak Sally talks ‘Recidivist IV’: ‘This is where I stand’

by  in Comic News Comment
Zak Sally talks ‘Recidivist IV’: ‘This is where I stand’

Zak Sally’s Recidivist IV was one of the most difficult comics I’ve ever read. I don’t mean that in an aesthetic or emotional or abstract sense. I mean it was physically difficult to read, as I frequently had to hold the comic at odd angles, or directly up against sunlight to be able to read certain sentences.

That’s entirely intentional. Sally uses bright metallic inks, intricate, overlapping patterns and more to make the type difficult to discern, if not as downright enigmatic as the accompanying images. Containing short stories (although they feel more like essays or simple declarations at times) about characters at life-altering crossroads, and accompanied with a CD of drone music, Recidivist IV is generally what you thinks of when you hear the phrase “a challenging work.” As he noted on his blog, it certainly isn’t a “passive, easy reading experience.”

It might also be one of the best comics of 2014, smart and elegant and breathtaking, a comic that forces you to engage with it but rewards you with its tightrope act as the reading experience and the content cohere into a breathtaking whole.

Sally contacted me a few weeks ago to see if I was interested in discussing the comic, which I absolutely was. We met up in a Google Doc where he talked about how the comic came coalesced and how the stories relate to his own current relationship to art and the comics world.

As he notes in the interview, he originally planned to release a free online version right away, but changed his mind after uploading the pages, although he promises to make the online version available at a later date. I understand his decision. This comic needs time to breathe.

Chris Mautner: It’s been a while since the release of Recidivist III. What made you decide to the one-man anthology format?

Zak Sall: I thought — and promised myself — that Recidivist 3 was the last Recidivist, just because how how rotten doing those books made me feel. it just sucked. when I was done I was DONE and that was a huge relief for me. that feeling held for a long time. But the last book of Sammy tore me up pretty good (for different and better reasons) and near the end of finishing the second volume, I thought, “Maybe a short break/switch-up might be helpful before volume 3.” And … some non-Sammy ideas had been pushing their way to the forefront; stuff that was dogging me. I felt like i needed to wrestle with it. Recidivist has always been the place where i do that wrestling. In 2005 i did it as a compulsion. Nine years later I did it because I wanted to. Things change.

What was it about doing Recidivist that made you feel so awful? And was that experience repeated working on the fourth issue?  

Well, I feel like I had some compulsion to do comics, but the only thing I could do them about was various attempts at figuring out, “What the hell is WRONG with me?” and while I was doing that, I also felt like it was self-centered and narcissistic to … spend so much time on that particular subject. With the new one, it was some of that, but different. I felt like it was less about “me,” and more about me in relationship to the world we all live in.

Is Recidivist an attempt — conscious or otherwise — for comics as therapy? Or comics as self-exploration? 

Yeah, absolutely. I’d say unconsciously, but certainly an attempt to try and work things out in some way. I only realized that after the fact. But even from my days in Low — we’d work on a song or make a record and just be involved in that process, and then five years later you’d look at it and think, “Holy fuck, it’s pretty clear what this is about and we had no idea at the time.” I think art works that way, a lot.

Is it fair to describe Recidivist IV as a manifesto? I don’t want to be trite, but parts of it feel like a manifesto to me. Certainly “Revenge” does.

Yow. “Manifesto” is a big term.

It’s a loaded word, I know. 

Sure, but I won’t disagree with you in that … it’s absolutely me saying to myself, “This is where I stand,” defining that for myself in a way that I can wholly get behind, and, uh, calling bullshit on some things that I think suck.

OK, that being said, to what extent do you regard this comic as … not a midlife crisis, but a midlife assessment? There’s a sense of taking stock and reassessing what’s important in these stories.

Absolutely. Last night I was assembling and taping the CDs into another batch of Recidivist IVs, and all of a sudden I realized that this is exactly what I was doing when I was 20 years old. Exactly. Only I’m 43 and there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then. And I just started crying like a baby. But not because it was … pathetic (which is a way think a lot of people might view that scenario — me included), but just that I felt so fucking lucky that I get to do this, and have been able to do this my whole life. It’s pretty amazing. So I wrote Aaron Cometbus and told him so he can mock me for crying (actually, he’d never do that). 

Hah! OK, so — and without giving too much of the game away, because I think the enigmatic nature of these stories is what gives them a lot of their potency — to what extent does the material in Recidivist IV directly address your relationship not only to comics, but to the comics industry and how comics are produced and viewed in North America today?

 In 500 words or less.

HA! I think I spent time — time I wish I could take back– concerned with where I did or didn’t fit into “comics.” It’s totally natural, given how much of my life I’ve spent in that world. The “midlife crisis” might have been me realizing … I just DON’T. I have no idea where I fit in. And … it’s very difficult to not sound snotty, and I don’t feel that way, but so much of it just has nothing to do with me or the things i care about in my daily life. I look at major comics sites and I just think — I’ve got more in common with cookbooks than I do with this. And even in the world of “indie” comics … I don’t know. And I’m done trying to figure it out.

I suspect there are a number of people who have similar concerns about trying to figure out where they fit in. I recently interviewed Michel Fiffe, and while his style and concerns are very different from yours, he expressed similar concerns.

Well, that’s the thing: You get to that point and it’s either get with the program, or don’t. And for me, it was incredibly freeing to just feel like: You know what? Fuck the program. You were never any good at it anyway. And also just realizing that I love comics, and I love making them, but what I REALLY love is … making stuff. It’s what I loved about music (and still do), zines, all of it. That’s the common thread. More than comics or music or whatever else as individual practices; that’s what I am, and what I do. And that impulse, to “make something”, even if it’s ridiculous or uncommercial or unsaleable, it’s more important to me now than ever. I don’t care if it looks or smells like a comic. I just care that it looks like something [made] with care and love and humanity in it. Cuz that stuff is getting rarer by the second. And people NEED that. I sure as hell do.

We’ve touched on this in previous interviews, but can you talk a little more about the importance of creating a “handmade” object? Of not only drawing but printing and controlling every aspect of production? I was taken with the section in your blog post where there was this idea that people could determine what is or isn’t a handmade object based on the print run, which seems INSANE to me.   

See, that’s the stuff I find SO interesting. It feels like we’ve all been trained to take things as what we think they ought to be, rather than at face value. I do it too, all the time. But that’s deeply rooted — you want it if it’s exclusive or rare in some way. But that exclusivity is based on … these surface elements, rather than the inherent qualities of the thing. These questions came up for me while i was printing Sammy Vol. 1, just thinking, “Hey, what’s the difference between what I’m doing here and a fancy-pantsy printmakers edition?” I didn’t know the answer, but it was a good question. And the answer seemed to be, “Well, it looks like a book and you can buy it at a store, and there’s a lot of them, so it’s not.” But wait, the process is the same! what the fuck?!? And it’s not like I’m vying for a place in the “fine art printmaker’s club,” but … there’s these distinctions that seem pretty absurd and actually have little to do with what we’re actually talking about (which, for me, has to do with a careful and considered handmade edition of art), and more about raw commerce. What’s the line that separates these things, and is it valid?

A lot of it is that shithole art-world nonsense, and that stuff is as bad as Wall Street. But it’s these somewhat arbitrary things that define our expectations. 

And the bigger question beyond those definitions is — our whole world consists of consuming stuff that we have NO connection to, on any level. Food, books, i-Pads, whatever, we don’t know who made it, where it came from and we don’t care. We take that for granted, that it’s all trash. And because of that, most of it is trash. I want something more.

So, I wanted the new Recidivist to have every element of my hand in it — that one person made this, and even if you hate everything else about it, someone spent time and effort on this thing.

And I wanted it to be clear that no one else was stupid enough to do a book like this.

Some of the stories in both new and old issues of The Recidivist and in some of the short stories in Like A Dog lapse into second-person singular. The narrator addresses a hidden “you” or seems to be talking to someone off-panel (or directly addressing the reader). What appeal does this sort of direct storytelling style have for you?

I think sometimes I’m addressing the reader and sometimes I’m addressing me, and sometimes I’m addressing me and the reader. Basically I just hammer at something until it feels right (or right enough). That “Revenge” strip you mentioned went through a draft where it was first person “I,” and it read like some freak in the town square foaming at the mouth. 

Unlike this interview.

You’re totally calm, cool and collected. I’m picturing you in a chaise lounge right now.

In my smoking jacket. With a pipe. 

And throwing back your head and laughing as you type.

Well, I just did for real when you wrote that.

 Let’s talk about the actual process of making Recidivist IV. How did the idea of making the actual reading experience physically challenging come about? 

The whole thing was pretty organic. which means I kept having cool ideas until it got so complicated I could not believe I’d gotten myself in this position AGAIN. The basic idea was: I acquired a Risograph, which makes printing on the offset press seem like the pain in the ass that it is. So i thought: It’ll be like the good old days, bang out a zine. And then my one-color zine turned into two, and then each strip got a different color scheme, and … but as far as the text, that was there from the very beginning. I wanted it weird and separate somehow. And I knew I could do that with the metallic ink. And then as the content of the strips took more form, it felt less like a “cool formal thing” and more like … something that was important to the book, and what the book is about. I think back on all the most important pieces of art I’ve experienced, and a lot of them … you had to work for it. It set the terms, and you had to meet it. I mean, I didn’t do that CONSCIOUSLY, but at the same time, I wanted it to be something you had to engage with differently than … other things. 

You’re asking readers to not only engage with the content but with the reading experience itself, which isn’t something a lot of cartoonists do. 

Yeah. I guess. but it’s also just … that’s what MY process was, you know? It wasn’t just writing and drawing it, I had to figure out that stuff as well. The “comics” aren’t a separate thing from the physical form of the book; the book is part of the work. It was for me, so it is for the reader as well. I’m not some guy who enjoys fucking with people for cleverness’ sake. it just happened, and I let it happen instead of fighting it. 

I WILL say that at a certain point I was faced with a pretty significant decision of whether this was going to be a little squarebound graphic novel-lookin’ thing, or a weird what-the-hell zine deal, and I decided unequivocally that this would be folded and stapled. I did NOT want it to look like a … book. and that literally added two months to my printing time, at least.

Did you have any difficulty deciding what color ink to use? Was there any period of trial and error? 

Lots of error. The color schemes came together pretty quickly. Once i’d seen John Pham’s Epoxy, I figured I could go nuts, so I did. I was really digging into the capabilities of the Riso on the fly, but that’s the great thing about it — you can just get up from the drawing table and try something out in a matter of five minutes, actually pulling prints, unlike the offset press. a LOT of the book just came from messing around with the Riso when i got stuck on some element of “content” (a drawing, etc.). Some portions of the book were all but finished printing while I was still drawing other parts. It sort of changed my life, actually. I get stuck a lot, and having the ability to switch gears so effortlessly was (and is) pretty amazing.

What about the accompanying CD? What made you decide to add music to the experience?

Well, I’d actually planned some music element with the last Recidivist, but that fell through. I’d been messing around with some drone/ noise pieces for fun. there’s some of that stuff I really love (Tim Hecker, Surface Of The Earth), and I thought including it would add yet another element of immersion to the thing. There’s a sort of thematic thing that runs through the sound piece as well, and I thought it might be in the general range of time it takes to read the book, but I didn’t synch it up like The Wizard of Oz and Pink Floyd or whatever. 

Now, you said in your recent interview with Tom Spurgeon that you’re planning to put all of Recidivist IV online for free, correct?

Yup. Tomorrow, with any luck.

What prompted this idea? I get the feeling from your conversation with Tom that there’s more to this than mere promotion. 

Promotion is not my strong suit. I’m actually trying to draft a longish explanatory piece about why exactly I am putting it up for free. There’s a couple reasons: One is that I feel bad that someone would have to pay $20. I’m a grown man and I know what went into this so I HAVE to ask that amount, but in a world where King-Cat is a perfect object and it’s $4 … you know. So I want people to read the thing if they want to. If they wanna just read it, here you go. It’s free. 

BUT, there’s this whole other … uh, experience, which is the one I hoped for and intended and worked real hard on, and that’s not the experience you’re going to get reading it online. and those are my people, you know? But I think, in all honesty, it draws some interesting lines and asks some questions about the content versus the physical object, and what each of those things means to people.

Very much so I think. The reading experience will be VERY different. I can’t tilt my monitor to try to be able to discern the text a the proper angle for instance.

Well, actually, that’s the third reason: Joe McCulloch’s review was … pretty astounding. But he did bring up the point that, at a certain point, the book becomes COMPLETELY illegible. and that was not my intention — I wanted it to get REALLY HARD to read, but not impossible. And depending on what copy you have, it very well could be impossible depending on how the ink hit the page, density-wise. I spent 48 hours feeling like a total failure, and then … THAT became really interesting to me, as well. 

I think there was only one or two text blocks where I simply couldn’t read the words, but even then I think I was able to figure it out by holding it up to the light or holding it at a 45 degree angle, etc.

And, shit — I LOVE that. But there you go — the one I’m putting up has been tweaked just enough so you CAN read everything. So, it’s a completely different experience. It’s like it’s the same exact book, but it’s totally different. One’s easy, one’s not. The HARD one costs money, The easy one’s free. You make your choice, I’m OK either way. 

I like that.

Me too. It makes me sound like a fancy conceptual artist, when actually it’s … things that happened, as part of the process. And as I said — it’s interesting stuff, to me.

Do you feel reinvigorated having completed this comic? There’s a sense of renewing commitment, of forging ahead come what may in the book that certainly mirrors some of the things you’ve been saying here.

It really does. Again, I’m sounding conceptual here, but that’s really what the new Recidivist is about. I mean, I’m in no way giving up on Sammy, but … I’m not a cartoonist anymore. Partly I am, but maybe not, too.

How do you mean that? Do you mean you just don’t lump yourself in with that group or you’re deliberately looking at this as a side job or what? Do you mean that in a conceptual/identity sense or in a more literal “this is not my job” sense? Both?

Actually, the moment I wrote that I wanted to take it back … I AM a cartoonist, but … the making of stuff, that seems to be the bigger concern right now, for me. Making it, and making it in a way that i feel good and honest about, and in a way I can tell my kids here’s what I do and I’m proud of it, whether or not it makes money and is “successful”. That’s the shit I care about. The rest of it is a mug’s game. I’ll do what I’ve got to do to get by, but I know what I actually care about. 

So where do you go from here then? You mentioned Sammy, but are you extending yourself beyond comics into other aspects of “making stuff” (i.e. music, prose, etc.)?

Yeah. I made an art school with my pal Dan Ibarra (called SCHOOLHAUS), and that was fantastic. I’m still involved with Autoptic, and that’s happening in 2015 too. I’m in a band that is the most fun I’ve ever had playing music in my life, and I started some kind of … novel, or something. And a couple things i’m forgetting right now. It’s a problem, really. 

Sounds like you’ve got a full plate.

I’m one lucky motherfucker, that’s for sure.

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