Zak Sally talks 'Recidivist IV': 'This is where I stand'

 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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