The Biggest Comic Book Ever
Kramers Ergot Isn't Just "Isn't Just for Kids Anymore" Anymore
BY NICHOLAS GAZIN
In early 2000, a husky Los Angeles fellow named Sammy Harkham threw together a comics zine with some of his friends and gave it the weird, possibly very pretentious name of Kramers Ergot. And it was good. And so were Kramers Ergot 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. But now, nine years on, Harkham has teamed up with Buenaventura Press to produce the seventh issue of his Kramers Ergot. It’s gigantic—16 by 21 inches—and it costs $125 (though we’re finding copies even now on Amazon for like $78. FYI, caveat emptor, etc.). There are a lot of comic anthologies springing up lately, but this one is hands-down the best.
I recently picked a few of KE 7’s 50-odd contributors and needled them about what it’s like to have a hand in constructing the Duesenberg SJ (look it up) of contemporary comics collections.
Let’s start with el jefe. Sammy Harkham and his brothers are a cultural force to be reckoned with. Sammy created Kramers Ergot, and his brother is in charge of a restored silent-movie theater, and some combination of those two and their third brother run the Family gallery and store, one of Los Angeles’s best (and only) outlets for cultural stuff like books and DVDs.
Vice: Can you tell me about the birth of Kramers Ergot?
Sammy Harkham: Kramers was a zine I did in high school—the first issue had interviews with Doo Rag and Will Oldham, some comics by me and my friends, and stolen and found content. It was shitty and dumb. When I was in art school, I started it back up again as a “proper” comic book, printing it with a small-publishers co-op, and it was still bad. Then over time it morphed and changed—first it was only cartoonists I knew, then a few other cartoonists I met through the mail, then it went color, and so on. I think with number 4, things started clicking and the sensibility felt honest and right.
The new Kramers is humongous and beautiful as hell. Have you been wanting to make something this big for a while?
Not really. When we were putting together number 6, I saw this huge reprint book of old Little Nemo comics and thought it would be interesting to see living cartoonists work in that format—the format of old newspaper comics. At that size, every cartoonist, no matter how many times you have read their work, will be a new reading experience. So I could ask anybody I liked—people who don’t normally contribute to anthologies like Geoff McFetridge and Dan Clowes—because this wouldn’t just be the usual thing of collecting stuff people are already doing. This thing would generate comics that wouldn’t exist otherwise. It’s a weird thing, though, because you don’t want to put too much pressure on the artists that they have to do the BEST THING EVER to make up for the cost of the book. I just tried to keep my goals simple. I wanted a book where everything wasn’t superdense or cleverly laid out. I wanted there to be an aspect of pleasure in just reading a simple 12-panel strip at that size. When the book was announced, a lot of people bitched about the price, saying we were making a cynical move, trying to rip people off, trying to make a fancy art book for rich people. I never thought about any of that when I was making the book. It became one of those things where, by talking about Kramers, people were really talking about themselves and their insecure feelings about hipsters, fine art, and weird inverse elitism. They’re not upset at the book based on what it is but on what it’s not. If anything, I saw how cynical people are—they can’t believe the idea of wanting to do something rad in the name of fun. And if it’s too expensive, get a fucking library card.
Do you have crazy dreams of how you’re going to do future volumes? Like make one that’s really tiny and you charge ten cents for, or go even bigger and produce it as strips of wallpaper that people have to paste onto a wall?
After this one, I just want a break from dealing with so many lunatic artists. I think I will do another one eventually, but I don’t think of the anthology as something that needs any sort of hook or gimmick. I get excited about publishing stuff that is great and that I want to see in print.
How’s the silent-movie theater going? It seems like you and your brothers have made Fairfax a great place to hang out. I admire that you have such a close working relationship with your siblings.
The theater is doing fine. I think it’s probably the best revival theater in America right now. The programming director finds amazing stuff that runs the gamut from high art to gutter trash that you can’t see anywhere. It’s really him and my brother’s place. I am one of those annoying types who wants to be involved in the good things other people are doing, and this is another example of that. So they indulge once in a while and listen to my dumb ideas. I don’t know if it’s a good idea to work with siblings, but it’ll probably go fine as long as one person is the leader, like in any collaboration.
So who’s the leader of the Harkham brothers?
Me, since I’m older.
Every few years, some mainstream publication does a story on comics that delivers the same info and name-checks Maus, any cartoonist who’s been in the New Yorker, and the Hernandez brothers. Jaime and his brother Gilbert started doing a comic called Love and Rockets back in the early 80s and they still do it today, albeit in a different format. Jaime’s work is set in a Mexican community in LA called Hoppers where his main characters Maggie and Hopey love, live, and grow old. I shouldn’t really have to be explaining this. You should know this already.
Vice: How long did the characters of Maggie and Hopey exist for you before you introduced them to publication?
Jaime Hernandez: Maggie goes back to my prepunk high school days. I wanted to create a female character that I could put in any situation, odd or normal. Her style evolved as my style evolved, and she happened to officially debut during the punk days. Hopey was created during the punk days so she didn’t have to do any evolving.
A lot of cartoonists look and act like some composite of their characters. I don’t know if I’ve ever noticed any characters who looked that much like you. Do you identify with any of your characters?
I drew myself sometimes in the background early on in the series. Maggie and Ray basically handle most of my thoughts, though a lot of times I purposely put thoughts into my characters that I don’t personally agree with. It keeps them interesting and real.
It seems like both you and Gilbert have a lot of gay and bisexual female characters. I’m sorry this sounds like such a therapy-type question, but were there a lot of gay and bisexual women in your lives growing up?
A few. It mostly came from just wanting to fill our stories with second-, third-, and fourth-class citizens. The more society doesn’t want us to do it, the more we feel it our duty to do it, full steam ahead.
How did you like working on the gigantic comic for Kramers?
It was fun. I was a little intimidated at first because I knew my style was old-school compared to the other contributors. But then I said, fuck it, they asked me, didn’t they? My story was a little different from how I normally work. I usually let the characters tell the story, but in this case I had a story that I had to fit the characters into, a story about insecure, competitive types. The two main women in the story were physical types that I had been wanting to use somewhere and this was a perfect opportunity. Too bad one of them had to be a villain.
Do you think there’ll ever be a Love and Rockets movie? Is that something you’d want?
Working on it. I keep my fingers crossed, though, because this stuff isn’t exactly Hollywood material.
Rick and Dan Clowes published their first comic together way back when as Pratt students. His comics are about the adorable creeps Doofus and Henry Hotchkiss and their adventures in Flowertown. They are funnily and grossly and beautifully drawn.
Vice: Where did Doofus come from?
Rick Altergott: It’s been so long since I came up with Doofus I hardly remember creating him. I was living in Delaware and drinking a lot of cheap suds, that much I can be sure of. Since then, the character has become more erudite and otherwise changed to fit my needs at the moment, while still keeping his core sleaziness intact.
How do you feel about your page in the new Kramers?
I’m happy with the end result of my page, but I always feel like the other guys are innately more creative than me so I have to overreach with the sleaze factor. I can’t help it—that’s my fallback position. I kind of think I was successful in what I set out to do, which was to explore sexual tension and long-time-relational dynamics.
Flowertown, USA, is amazing to me, in that it’s like a complete, living world that I believe in and kind of want to live in.
Thanks. I’m having fun with the locales in the long-form story I’m working on right now. There are several recurring visits to established places, which makes it tough on me because I hate having to do continuity. I hope no one is going to break my balls about that stuff. As if comics aren’t hard enough for me to draw. I’m not sure why you would want to live in a place like Flowertown, USA, though. Please don’t say it’s the Naked Fishermen.
You and your wife had a baby, right? How are family times?
Ariel and I love being parents, all right, but who could have predicted how much work it would be? It’s kind of terrifying to realize that you have made the commitment of a lifetime, but it’s a wonderful thing. I hope my son, Eddie, doesn’t become a B-list alternative cartoonist like his old man. Then again, I predict that the influences that steered me into the field, such as Mad magazine, model kits, and comic books, will all be gone by the time he’s old enough to be lured in.
What other comics are you into right now?
I have to confess that I haven’t seen a lot of new comics recently, outside the Kramers 7 lineup. Among my favorites in there are Ted May, Dan Clowes, Dan Zettwoch, Richard Sala, Seth, Kim Deitch, Eric Haven, CF, and a large number of European artists who I was not previously familiar with and don’t sign their work. In general, I like comics that are presented in a straightforward manner and are narrative driven, but anything by Crumb is cool. I saw the recent show of his in Philadelphia and was blown away. He is the seedbed of a whole generation of artists working today.
photo: Getty Images
Dan Clowes created Eightball and made the movies Ghost World and Art School Confidential. He is the closest that anyone has come to being a second R. Crumb. He is a drawing super-genius.
Vice: It’s rare for you to do comics these days. What made you agree to do one for Kramers?
Daniel Clowes: I was a fan of the previous few issues and I couldn’t resist the big pages. Also, the sheer insane fiscal irresponsibility of the project. I was intrigued by the idea of doing a story on a single page that had a high level of narrative density—it’s a very different thing from breaking something down over six or seven pages. I wanted the reader to have forgotten the beginning of the story by the time he got to the last panel and then have to start over.
Sawdust, the story you did for your page, is really grim. Did anything particular lead to it?
I did that story about two months before I was scheduled to get major open-heart surgery. I had a defective heart valve and, as a result, my heart was twice as big as it should have been and they were concerned I might need a transplant if it didn’t go well. Aside from being so weak I could hardly walk up the stairs, I was really facing the void for the first time and grappling with leaving my wife and two-year-old son behind and pondering with sober grimness the pointlessness of my life. Fortunately, I lucked into an amazing surgeon who corrected the problem and now I feel better than I have in 20 years and have completely forgotten the many resolutions to change my life that I made during this stretch.
Good God. I’m glad that you’re still alive.
As I said, I’m in great shape now. My heart is back to its normal size and ticks like a Swiss watch and I have an awesome 12-inch zipper scar down my chest that frightens mothers and children at the beach, so all is good.
I saw that you named your son Charlie. You don’t meet too many Charlies these days, but it’s a great name. Also versatile. Charlie is the friendliest name there is, unless you’re a Vietnam vet, but Charles is very dignified and sober. What made you and your wife choose the name?
Thanks for saying that. Yes, Charles is obviously the best name. We picked it because of a close friend named Charles, but also for all the great Charleses out there—Schulz, Addams, Burns…
Do you see yourself returning to comics in either the near or far-flung future?
I’ve actually been working on sort of a graphic novel for the past year. Got about 60 pages done so far out of probably 75 or so. No idea who will publish it or when. After that, I will be working on the somewhat-expanded book version of “Mr. Wonderful,” the strip I did for the New York Times Magazine. And beyond that, I have two other book/comic things that I’m anxious to work on and a script for a crazy animated science-fiction film for Michel Gondry.
Can you tell me anything about the movie yet or is it all secret?
It’s called Megalomania, but beyond that I think I’m not allowed to say anything.
What are you seeing in comics that you like?
I like a lot of the stuff that Buenaventura and Picturebox publish. I like Matt Furie and CF and the guy that did New Engineering. My favorite current work-in-progress is Tim Hensley’s “Wally Gropius” in Mome. I’m really looking forward to Crumb’s Genesis and Charles Burns’s weird Tintin-esque book and above all the conclusion to Rick Altergott’s Blessed Be.
Over the years, your lines have gone from angular and accentuating the grotesque qualities of people to a more forgiving curve. Do you like people more now?
Well, neither style was anything I consciously intended, so maybe there’s something to it. I actually think it has more to do with moving to California. People just aren’t as sickly and overweight and grotesque out here as they were in Chicago.
Kramers Ergot 7 is available from the Buenaventura Press website. We didn’t show you any images from it here because these interviews are all really long, but hey, that’s what Google is for.
Johnny is that guy who’s in Vice all the time and does the funny business. Come on, you know this fucker already. He’s extremely humorous, but he also is pushing and expanding traditional comics stuff way more than a casual reading by a stupid person like you might reveal.
Vice: Your page in the new Kramers is a parody of a comic that David Heatley, who’s also in the new Kramers, had in the last issue of Kramers. Well played. Have you caught any heat from him over it?
Johnny Ryan: I don’t know what he thinks. I just thought it would be funny to parody a Kramers Ergot comic in Kramers Ergot for some reason. My page also includes a penis-measuring device, though, making it the only truly useful page in the entire book.
Oh yeah, it’s based on a scale of comic characters from Witchy Poo to Marmaduke. What do you rate on the Kramers Peter Meter? I rated “Sluggo.”
How’s married life?
Are you hitting on me?
No. Are you hitting on me?
Does Howard Stern acknowledge those ever-increasing posters you make featuring all the people on his show?
Not Howard Stern personally, but I’ve heard from people on the show like Ass Napkin Ed.
Is your goal to get out of comics and end up as a toy mogul or screenwriter or video-game-concept artist? It seems like that’s what people who become successful in comics do. They get into comics so they can get out.
I dunno. I don’t feel like I’m actively looking for a way out. All my ideas right now are comics-centered. I’m not pitching any TV shows or writing any movie scripts at the moment. If somebody asked me to pitch a show, I’d probably do it pretty half-assed—I’m bad at that shit. But who knows? If a good opportunity presents itself, like Rock of Love Bus or Bromance or something awesome like that, I might do it.
What are you reading these days?
I’ve been reading lots of manga like Berserk, Dragonball, Slam Dunk, Monster Men Bureiko Lullaby, and Tokyo Zombie. Also some superhero stuff, too, like Walt Simonson’s Thor. And Ganges by Kevin Huizenga, Herbie reprints, Boy’s Club by Matt Furie, and Powr Masters by CF.
Really? What do you like about Dragonball and Slam Dunk? I always thought that kind of manga was pretty boring.
Manga is just like American comics in that there’s lots of bad shit, but there’s still some really great stuff if you’re willing to look for it. Slam Dunk is not a good example of really great manga. It’s just fun teenager comics. They don’t really make comics about high school basketball or romance over here. And Dragonball is terrific. It’s probably meant for 12-year-olds or something, but it’s still wild, funny, and imaginative enough to keep my attention. Also, check out The Drifting Classroom by Kazuo Umezu or Ultra Gash Inferno by Suehiro Maruo. But I don’t know, if you don’t like it, you don’t like it. What the fuck you want from me?
Can you tell me what Dragonball is about?
There’s a bunch of these magic balls and if you collect them all you get one wish, so all these crazy characters go on a mad hunt for the balls, like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World but with fighting and monsters. Even though it’s meant for kids, there’s lots of juvenile-type sex jokes in it. I guess kids in Japan are allowed to read that kind of stuff.
Are you ever going to do a series of manga parodies like Funny Pages or Klassic Komix Klub?
Who wants to see that?
Matt is a stunning new talent who does comics about anthropomorphic animals. His subject matter ranges roughly from stoner humor to acid humor. Pretty much everybody is watching this guy right now.
Vice: Do you get upset when people say you’re just a Ben Jones rip-off?
No, because the rumors are true—I am a Ben Jones rip-off. He is my favorite artist and I copy everything he does. I would stalk him if I could, but I live out in San Francisco with all the gays.
So you have no harsh words for your accusers then. You’re owning it.
Ben Jones is like the Rolling Stones in the 60s, and I’m like the Black Crowes or early-90s Aerosmith. I actually first found out about Paperrad years ago through an article in Vice. After that I hunted down some Ben Jones comics and they totally blew my mind. He had jokes like “What’s crappening?” with a drawing of a dude shitting his pants and other stuff like a guy teaching a dolphin what a food “wrap” was. They were done in a complex yet simple style and I fell in love with them. When I set out to start doing comics, he’s what inspired me to make the characters simple line drawings rather than these detailed crosshatched masterpieces I’d been trying to make at the time. There are a lot of similarities between my Boy’s Club comic and Ben Jones’s stuff like Alfe, but at the same time there are also interesting spiritual elements mixed in with the humor in Ben Jones’s work. My stuff is pretty much limited to fart humor, catchphrases, and vomit gags.
What’s more important to you, your paintings or your comics? Is one of them “for real” and the other more like a hobby?
I actually don’t do paintings. Almost all of my color drawings are done with Prismacolor markers and Prismacolor pencils. I also use a bit of India ink and liquid acrylic and outline all of my drawings with Micron pens. But to actually answer the question—the Ben Jones rip-off comics are just as important as the colored-pencil drawings.
What comics were you into as a kid?
There was a comic-book shop down the street from our apartment in suburban Ohio and I would walk down there to buy mostly Image comics, but also some Valiant and Dark Horse. Stuff like Spawn, Savage Dragon, The Maxx, and Hard C.O.R.P.S. Even before I got interested in comics I was really into Garbage Pail Kids and these little square, Japanese, super-deformed stickers that I collected from peanut-butter-flavored cookie bars I bought at this Japanese grocery I could ride my bike to. I traded these awesome stickers to my friend Mason McClew for some shitty Marvel cards and I have regretted it ever since. I was actually on eBay this morning trying to hunt some down, but I forgot what they were called. If anyone out there could help, it would be much appreciated.
Your comics are about hyper-specific and odd things that your characters do. Are Landwolf and the other guys based on real people?
It’s a mix. Some of it is specific to things that a friend or me has done. For example, there is a scene in Boy’s Club where Landwolf wakes up after drinking a lot of beer and steps into the shower with his socks still on. When he realizes what’s happened, he says, “Fuck it,” and keeps showering. Believe it or not, that actually happened to me. Other stories I make up or get from friends. Not to overanalyze it, but I feel like the four characters in Boy’s Club represent four different aspects of my own personality. It’s also like the Ninja Turtles. Brett is Leonardo, Pepe is Donatello, Landwolf is Michelangelo, and Andy is Raphael.
What was it like doing a comic for the new Kramers and having to work at that scale?
The scale was epic. I totally shit my pants when Alvin invited me to submit a storyboard for it. Pretty much everybody in the book is a hero of mine—Ben Jones, Will Sweeney, Matt Groening, Brinkman, Johnny Ryan, Leif Goldberg—so it was a pleasurable mind boner to be a part of it.
Matthew and I wanted the interview to be spooky so we did it in a graveyard, staring up at the sky together. Matthew was in the band Soiled Mattress and the Springs and does various comics including the series 1-800 MICE.
Did you like working on the giant-size comic for Kramers?
There was a certain amount of pressure to make something of high quality. It was also physically challenging to lean over the drafting table and reach the top of the page with my wee, stunted arms. While I was working on the piece, I received troubling calls in the middle of the night from a man who would only identify himself as Winsor McKay. He kept whispering cryptic phrases into the receiver, which I assumed was advice. Words like “Mellow Lugosi. Whittle, nibble, Rapido.” Later I realized it was just Sammy Harkham, some weird thing he does—a Method-acting tool. He also had about half of the artists draw their pages under hypnosis, Herzog style. Eventually I worked on it at actual size, after some botched experiments.
Your comic in Kramers involves a man whose band broke up. Is it supposed to be about your band that broke up?
No, the story was done before our band broke up. That character is Gary Garry Beers, the bass player for INXS, who reunite in the comic to produce a final album in the underworld with the corpse of Michael Hutchence. Soiled Mattress was a great band. In Southern California and in northern Florida we achieved a level of popularity comparable to INXS. However, we became too powerful and had to be deactivated. Our act of autoerotic strangulation was to end the life of the band just as it was being perfected. Despite these similarities, I feel that we have gone on to a happy afterlife full of musical projects. Peter and Avi’s new band, Silk Flowers, is an excellent doom-synth combo.
Do you come to this cemetery often? Is this the same cemetery in your comic?
Every night to sleep. It is in my neighborhood and it is a fantastic neighborhood itself, with pyramid-shaped mausoleums as you can see. This is where the story is set, where the parrots guard the passage into the underworld. I have been trying to introduce more local flavor into my stories, to make them more hard-hitting and realistic. Think of them as being filmed on location, like an episode of Law & Order.
What do you think happens when we die?
I think the pineal gland releases a tidal wave of DMT into the brain, and we get to wander through the billion images we have accumulated in our brains during our time on earth, and probably in all sorts of fancy combinations, for what seems to us like eternity. Our physical bodies turn into mulch.
You answered that really quickly. Are you big into psychedelics?
I have hardly any experience with hallucinogens. Maybe some gasoline mirages at the AM/PM or coffee brain spasms. Making art is psychedelic. I don’t think that you need anything else besides your own brain. Look at dreams for example—an incredible hallucination every night.
Kramers Ergot 7 is available from the Buenaventura Press website. We didn’t show you any images from it here because these interviews are all really long, but hey, that’s what Google is for.