"Beta Testing" Tom Kaczynski's "Trans Terra"

Tom Kaczynski is a cartoonist best known until recently for his minicomics and short comics that have appeared in many anthologies and publications, most notably "Mome." His stories from "Mome" and a new story have all been collected into the book "Beta Testing the Apocalypse," which was published by Fantagraphics Books earlier this year. In May, "Trans Terra," which Kaczynski called "a kind of mutant biography," takes a very different tact on some of the issues and ideas that are addressed and play out in his stories in "Beta Testing the Apocalypse."

Kaczynski is also the publisher and founder of Uncivilized Books. While he's been putting out minicomics from Gabrielle Bell, Jon Lewis, Dan Wieken and others, in 2012 Uncivilized published three larger books from Bell, Lewis and James Romberger. This year Uncivilized will add new books by David B., Zak Sally, Kevin Huizenga, Dan Zettwoch, to name a few. CBR News spoke with Kaczynski about his own work, publishing others, his plans for Uncivilized and the brand new Autoptic Festival which he is helping to organize in Minneapolis this August.

CBR News: "Beta Testing the Apocalypse" is a collection of the stories you did for "Mome," except for the last one, which is new. How did you start working on "Mome?"

Tom Kaczynski: I think issue #7 was when I joined the "Mome" team. Basically I'd been doing mini comics for a while and some of my comics were in various publications and anthologies and magazines like Punk Planet. Eric Reynolds, one of the editors of "Mome," had seen some of my comics and liked them enough to say, "hey keep sending me stuff." That's basically what I did. Whenever I did something new I'd send it to him and at some point he said, "hey, let's put this in "Mome,"" and it just went from there.

The stories you did for "Mome" are different from the other comics work of yours that I've read.

Definitely. When I had the opportunity to work with Eric on "Mome," that's a direction I set for myself. It was something I was already working towards with mini comics like "Vague Cities" (which is reprinted in "Cartoon Dialectics" #2). I had done a few sporadic short pieces on cities in an essayistic fashion and I just decided on that as the direction for the Mome strips. There was no specific idea for a longer sequence of stories. The first story was going to be about one aspect of cities. The second story would be something similar but dealing with a different aspect. It just slowly built up from there.

So you were conscious of having a different approach for "Mome" and doing something similar in each issue?

Yeah, but it wasn't super thought out. I've been wanting to do more stories about cities. The more of these stories I did, the more connections I started seeing between the stories, the more it made sense to keep building on them.

Anyone who reads the book can see they're about cities, and you studied architecture and I know a number of people in comics who did the same. Why architecture, and do you think it affects your work?

When I got into college I needed a major that was artistic but somehow still concrete and I picked architecture. [Laughs] So I came to architecture in a bit of a random way. But, as I worked on it in college I really fell in love with the discipline. It became a subject matter that I was really fond of and interested in, and it has infected a lot of my comics. I came to architecture without a lot of premeditation but I really grew to like it.

There's an apocalyptic mindset that pervades the book. Where does that come from or is it just what you feel is in the air today?

It's a little bit of that. I feel like maybe we're getting out of that right now, at least in the United States. I think post-9/11 especially, there was a general gloom in the American psyche and a lot of it was expressed through apocalyptic movies. There was a lot of them coming out for a while there. It seemed like there was a new one every few months. There was something in the air and I needed to comment on that. At the same time I was getting bored with post-apocalyptic stories where people are just trying to survive once civilization has collapsed. Those kinds of stories tend to be less interesting to me just because I think civilization is what makes life interesting. It creates all these different things and culture and without it, life becomes much more about base survival. What was more interesting to me was this apocalyptic mindset. How do you get to the point where you want to leave civilization? Where you want to leave this whole existence that's been built up? A corollary to that is when this apocalyptic imagination takes over it also makes it less possible to make things better now. There's an easy willingness to imagine the collapse of everything instead of small changes in the political system that could fix a lot of the problems that we're having. Those kinds of themes interest me.

Apocalypse is an easy out. It's appealing because it doesn't require change and compromise. It's simple.

Yeah, and I think a lot of times it's also presented as a grand adventure. All of a sudden you don't have to go to school, you're hunting mutants or whatever and driving cars really fast. Obviously that's not the case with every post-apocalyptic story, but that is a huge part of it. It's almost like wish fulfillment of some sort where you get to have fun. [Laughs] I don't know if that would true.

The major comparison to your work is J.G. Ballard and I've always found that in Ballard's work what's most fascinating and disturbing is that all these horrific stories where things happen take place in functioning societies.

Right. The edifice of normality has all this ferment underneath it. I've definitely cribbed a lot from Ballard. It's a theme that runs through many of my stories. Everything just chugging along but all of a sudden certain characters or portions of he population decide that something's wrong-at the very least at the mental level-it doesn't necessarily always get physically manifested. It's interesting how that seething ferment underneath surface normality fits in his autobiography. Ballard was dreaming up his visions while living in suburbia a single dad raising a bunch of kids. As a young kid obviously he saw a lot of awfulness bubble up.

We've been talking about cities, but there's always been an apocalyptic mindset about cities, especially for past century or so.

I wouldn't say a century, but at least since the '50s and '60s when the major migration to the suburbs started. A negative characterization of the city emerged. It was an awful place, a horrible place to live, a horrible place to raise children where crime is happening all the time and everything's falling apart! You better get out of there and move to the suburbs where it's nice. [Laughs] Detroit is obviously the poster child for that de-urbanization. I think that narrative is definitely changing. People are starting to move back to the cities. All of a sudden cities are much more energy efficient. If they're designed correctly they can be good places to live. We're seeing a new narrative emerge. General urbanization never really stopped, but in America there was a moment where the central cores of cities depopulated -- and they're repopulating now. And if you go back further in history to the first cities, there's always the story of a city that's lost, a city that falls, a city that's destroyed. It's a cycle that repeats itself. But cities are hard to kill -- a lot harder than, say, corporations, which are another kind of multi-generational entity. Many cities are thousands of years old and they're interesting entities to look at. They've gone through so many changes and yet so much remains.

You also designed the book. Talk a little about the choices you made as far as the table of contents and the index.

A lot of the stories share a gimmick, if you will, of having a number in the title. These numbers represent the space-time continuum. Each story has a specific time and a specific place. When I was designing the book, I was thinking about an over-arching organization and space-time took over. Maybe I pushed it a little bit too far. [Laughs] The table of contents is a two-dimensional space-time chart and each story is mapped according [to] its specific space-time trajectory. Stories jump from place to place or in time -- from a long ago to now to the future -- and all these trajectories are mapped out in the table of contents.

As for the index, I've always wanted comics to have indices. When you read something by, say, Dan Clowes, the stories contain all these visual references that I wish were spelled out. Maybe not the first time around, but the second time around third time around so that the audience can learn to understand that there's a lot going on in the visuals. It's accepted in Fine Art. Part of appreciating paintings for example is knowing what is being represented, what the details mean, etc. Comics don't have a lot of that, and yet there's just as much of that kind of play happening in [the] best comics. It would be nice if comics had something like that. It would also help create better readers who understand the depth of the work that goes into every panel.

You have a new book coming out in the spring, "Trans Terra." What is it about?

I did a series of comics with a Trans prefix -- "Trans-Alaska," "Trans-Siberia," "Trans-Atlantis," "Trans-Utopia" -- and they're much more autobiographical. They're more essay-like. I deal with a lot of similar themes that I deal with in "Beta Testing the Apocalypse." But, "Beta Testing" is fiction and the "Trans" stories take place in real world. I'm talking about ideas that I actually believe in. Whereas in "Beta Testing" I play with ideas and beliefs that I'm interested in, but I wouldn't follow through in the "real world," "Trans" is a kind of mutant biography that's also a philosophical tract and a kind of political manifesto. Also there's some new material created specifically for "Trans Terra" that talks about writing philosophy and theory in comics form and begins to make a case for it. That sounds more serious than it actually is on paper. It's just thinking about how comics can engage that kind of material, make it more interesting -- or at least get you to look at certain issues in different ways -- visuals add another dimension and create a different way of looking at philosophy and theoretical concepts.

It's interesting because the genre that comics so rarely tackles is the essay

Right. Comics as a medium has generally stayed in the fictional universe, superheroes, science fiction, romance, detective fiction, and more recently it's gone into more literary directions like memoir and fiction. The essays are there, but they're few and far between. I think it's interesting to see what comics can contribute. I don't know if it succeeds or not, but I'm trying. [Laughs]

"Trans Terra" comes out in May, correct?

Yes. I had to delay it a little bit. It was originally supposed to be out in February but "Beta Testing" came out late and I didn't want to compete with myself so I pushed back Trans Terra a bit. It's from Uncivilized, my own publishing venture. I probably could've done elsewhere but this particular project is very close to my heart. I have very specific ideas about how it should be put together and how I want to market it, so I'm doing it by myself. It's a project that's been with me for many years now so I want to take it all the way to the end.

That's a good segue into publishing because you've been publishing minicomics for a few years now.

That's right. With Gabrielle [Bell] and Jon Lewis and now I'm working with Derek van Gieson as well. A couple other cartoonists are coming onboard this year as well but I can't talk about that yet.

Last year you published you first book book, Gabrielle's "The Voyeurs." Why did you decide to go in this direction?

I feel like I've been asked this question a few times now and the more I think about the more I realize that I've sort of been a publisher since I was a little kid. Not literally, but mentally. One of my first comics that I drew -- I folded it, stapled it, drew a logo on it, made up my own publishing company, added an edition number, priced it. That's the ten year-old me already thinking in publishing terms, trying to make the comics look like a product. That's something that's followed me throughout my life. When I discovered mini comics in the mid-'90s, it seemed like a natural way to be doing this kind of material instead of pursuing work for publishers. When you're younger you often aspire to work for Marvel or DC or wherever. Mini comics seemed like the perfect place for me and my comics and I never looked back. When the opportunity came up to work with Gabrielle or Jon Lewis, it just seemed like a natural extension of all that.

From your perspective, what unites you and Gabrielle and Jon and James Romberger and the others you publish? What's the common thread or theme or approach?

That's a tough question. With Gabrielle for example, I like her comics first of all, but I also feel an affinity towards her as a cartoonist. We both tend to write pretty dense comics. There's a lot of narrative, a lot of words. There's a literary quality beyond just the kinetic action of images. The same goes for Jon Lewis. The same goes for James Romberger although the work that I published of his, "Post York," is on more on the kinetic side of comics but overall I think he's a cartoonist that fits into that mold. And I think that's true of pretty much everyone that I'm working with. They tend to represent the more literary wing of comics. The comics that I publish tend to be more heavily written than many others that are out there. If that makes sense.

When I interviewed Jon, it seemed like he feels reinvigorated and eager to do more comics.

I hope so! [Laughs] I want him to do more. I love his comics and I would love to see more comics from him. Doing this with him has been really rewarding just to see him engaged and hanging out at shows and talking to lots of people. It's a lot of fun. I really like working with other people. Comics tend to be such an insular beast. You're at home by yourself and don't see much of the world outside. Publishing is a way for me to engage with the rest of the planet. [Laughs] I do like it. I always used to idealize the old Marvel bullpen where people would show up and work on their comics and make jokes and prank each other -- except I wouldn't want it to be part of this corporate entity. [Laughs] I wish more of that was happening. Obviously some people have studios they share but I don't have that right now, so publishing is one way to interact with the rest of the world.

You're also publishing a new book by David B. this spring.

Yes the new David B. book, "Incidents in the Night," which is a work that never made it over here. It recently got collected in France and I'm doing the English language collection. It's translated by the well-known novelist Brian Evenson.

There's also Zak Sally's "Sammy the Mouse Volume 2" and Pete Wartman's "Over the Wall." I'm working with Kevin Huizenga and Dan Zettwoch on a collection of "Leon Beyond" strips called "Amazing Facts and Beyond." That's the spring season. The fall season is just being finalized.

Will there be a second collection of "True Swamp?"

Yes. It looks like it won't make it in the fall but probably spring next year. There's a plan to put out "True Swamp" as a trilogy. The work that just came out in hardcover is volume one. The early 2000s material will be volume two, and then the new stuff that he's working on now will compromise volume three.

Do you and Uncivilized have any big convention plans for the year?

I'll definitely be at TCAF. I'm pretty sure I'll be at Stumptown. And MoCCA too. And I don't know if you heard but me and a few people locally are putting on a new festival in Minneapolis in August. It's called the Autoptic Festival. It's myself, Zak Sally, Anders Nilsen, and the folks from 2D Cloud and a couple other people. It's going to be August 18. It's going to be a music/comics/graphics festival and we've got an amazing venue set up for it. I'm really excited. Then the fall festivals I haven't planned, but I'd really like to go to pretty much all of them if possible.

I keep meeting cartoonists from Minneapolis, but is there a show out there?

There's a show that's pretty big called SpringCon, which is fun, but it's very much an old school comics convention with a lot of dealers with long boxes full of comics and a lot of cosplaying fans and a smattering of mainstream cartoonists from Marvel and DC. But, they've also been very supportive of the local scene and they give tables to local cartoonists for free. And then for a couple years we had MIX, the Minneapolis Indie Expo which unfortunately crashed and burned after the second year. The organizer got burned out. Both of the MIX shows were really successful -- they had good attendance and they brought a lot of interesting people from out of town and they really galvanized the local comics community. We also have one of the few comics schools in the country, with MCAD. It was a shame not to have a show anymore -- that's why we've created that Autoptic Festival I mentioned to continue the energy that started with MIX. It's a really good town for comics. There are a lot of cartoonists, it's cheap and it's pretty fun.

As a last question, what are you working on?

I just finished a short comic for "Twin Cities Noir" from Akashic Books. It's the only comic in there. I set the story in the Minneapolis skyway system, which is a series of bridges that connect pretty much all the downtown buildings. It was really fun to do and it will be out in August. After that I have some plans for some smaller things I want to do. I'll probably put out another "Cartoon Dialectics" by the end of the year. I have a few comics essays in my head that I want to get out there. And then after that we'll see. I have a couple bigger projects I could be working on. One is a biography of a historical Minnesotan that I've been wanting to do for a long time. I finally may be able to start on that before the end of the year.

"Trans Terra" is on sale in May.

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