Jonathan Lethem is the author of nine novels, including “Gun, with Occasional Music,” “Motherless Brooklyn,” “The Fortress of Solitude,” and most recently, “Dissident Gardens.” He is this year’s editor for the annual, “Best American Comics.” Lethem’s 2003 novel, “The Fortress of Solitude,” famously references superhero comics. In 2007-2008, Marvel Comics published a ten-issue comic book collaboration between Lethem and artist Farel Dalrymple. It was a revisiting of one of the most unlikely of superheroes from the 1970s, “Omega the Unknown.” In 2013, Lethem collaborated with artist Raymond Pettibon as part of a collection of the artist’s work.
In my review of Best American Comics 2015, I speak to this year’s focus on comics as art. Series editor Bill Kartalopoulos brought in the idea of including Raymond Pettibon and it’s an exciting move toward further establishing comics as an art form in its own right. It would seem to many of us that such an assertion is no longer necessary. But every bit helps to make known to all readers the endless possibilities for comics. In my interview, we talk about Pettibon and his place in both the art world and the comics world. And we take a closer look at what comics are all about in the first place.HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: I was reading over an interview you gave in 2008 and I wanted to quote a little from it. You said: “What I do in book after book after book is smash together — as urgently and as adamantly as I can — things that feel verifiably real everyday: textures, stuff of the prosaic and dreamlike material.” Is that the spirit in which you took on your editorship of this year’s Best American Comics?
JONATHAN LETHEM: That’s a great question. I like that quote. I don’t always love hearing myself read back to me but that one stands up. It sounds like what I feel that I do. Of course, I didn’t think of the editorship as having to reflect my aesthetic as though this were like a novel I was writing. You know, it extends from my position as a member of the audience, as a fan, as a responder, of other people’s work.
I’ve always seen a lot of continuity between the reader and the writer. There’s something in between like a member of the bookstore staff putting together a display, or a deejay setting up a set, or that overused term, “curator.” Helplessly, I’m grabbing at things that interest me and pushing them up against each other to make interesting vibrations between them. So, I guess it is like that quote. It is similar. The book ended up including things that are surreal, or magical, or fantastical, along with stuff of grubby ordinary life.
HC: This is your own personal journey through comics. I’m thinking of what Bill Kartalopoulos, the series editor, had said about this year’s edition being less of a survey than last year’s. I suppose each editor is going to bring different things to the next volume. This is your own take on the current scene in comics.
JL: Bill was tremendous about handing me a lot of rope. Obviously, he’s immersed in a field in a way, on a year to year basis, that I could never dream of being. He was brilliant in getting me up to speed and informing me of context. He was a pair of super-binoculars. He also wanted the book to be mine and not lead the horse to water too often. He said he wasn’t passing along anything he wasn’t interested in but that it was going to be too much and that I would need to carve out a vision from all this stuff. He was a great sounding board. He helped guide me to my decisions. For a while, I was floundering around. It’s overwhelming. The field is so huge and so hyper-kinetic in the kinds of energy and ambition being expressed.
HC: So, going through that mountain of books, impressed upon you the enormity of possibilities for comics.
JL: Yeah, I really did feel that. I guess that my selections reflect a kind of a sense of wanting to force the reader to experience, in some ways, the same exciting calamity of possibilities that I experienced. I wanted to reproduce the sensation of “What the hell is this?” Comics are so many different things right now: so vibrant, so many chances are being taken, so many fantastic experiments are being conducted. I started to think that this wasn’t just one thing. It’s a gigantic art form with brilliant juxtapositions and perplexities encompassed within.HC: Looking at this year’s Best American Comics selections that you made, it runs the gamut from a more straightforward approach, like Eleanor Davis, to a more unconventional approach, like Henrietta Valium. And it’s all comics. I think you did something very significant this year by, in a natural way, bringing forward the understanding that comics is an art form. Now, one of my pet peeves, and you may agree, is when a gallery or museum labels something as only “comics-related” when, in fact, it is a work of comics, pure and simple.
HC: And here you have Raymond Pettibon’s work on the cover of this year’s Best American Comics.
JL: Somehow, I got in there very early and that was a piece of good luck. A little feeler that series editor Bill Kartalopoulos put forward was that he had spotted this recent work of Pettibon’s and he sort of dared me to agree with him that it really was comics, just like you say. I was the right recipient for that little piece of provocation. I was already a big Pettibon fan. I wrote something for him, so we had collaborated on that a few years ago. The results were published in The Believer. And that was a comic. I thought of it explicitly as four panels. I wrote for him a four-panel really bizarre and over-loaded comic to do. Raymond being Raymond, took that into even stranger directions. When Bill asked what I would think of Pettibon’s work in a comics context, I was absolutely on board. As an opening exchange, I think it set the ground for how the rest of the book was going to feel to us, that we’d agreed to this slightly audacious definition of comics. And then it comes first circle with the invitation to Raymond to be the cover artist and his agreeing to do it.HC: When I was reading this year’s Best American Comics in a cafe the other day, a barista made that “What the hell is this?” comment. And it was in a very supportive tone as he was very familiar with Pettibon’s work. This would be interesting: What can you tell us about Raymond Pettibon? How does he see himself within a comics context?
JL: I have met him a handful of times. And I would say that he is dodgy in the extreme, with a great disinterest in facing questions like that directly. But his work is eloquent. His work incorporates giant chunks of response to comics as one of the key American vernacular visual languages. Along with film, the covers of pulp paperbacks, and tabloid photography, his work devours comics as a source. You have images of Superman, you have hints of Krazy Kat. There’s that Vavoom character from Little Lulu. I think, to him, it’s a question that is too obvious for him to engage in. And here is where I’d feel a lot of native sympathy myself in terms of my own writing and how it engages with comics as a zone of vitality and American language all its own. Comics just begs to be responded to by other art forms. So, what the Pop artists did, by grabbing onto that comics energy, is akin to other artists, like Philip Guston, or Raymond Pettibon. What I’ve humbly tried to do a couple of times in my writing is that, somehow make literary prose just to the tune to the energy that you find in a comic book or a comic strip panel. I think it’s a natural response. You see that today among artists, an understanding that comics are crucial, alive, and part of the American cultural stratum.
HC: You see all sorts of creative people fascinated by comics narrative. You teach creative writing. Do you suggest comics to your students?
JL: I have done that and I also have dealt with some independent study students or thesis writers working on the subject of graphic novels. I haven’t yet assigned a comic as a text in a seminar class but you’re making me think that I ought to do that. It doesn’t seem out of reach to me. My seminars have included film assignments in the past so it would be completely of a piece with that.
HC: I want to reassure everyone that this is not simply a survey, although it is in some sense. It’s definitely a wonderful guide to what’s been going on in comics in the last year or so.
JL: I hope so.
HC: I love how you keep an irreverent tone. It’s respectful but fun. I mean, your introduction is a comic and it’s hilarious. I love the character you created, even though you say it’s derivative.
JL: Well, most good characters are derivative. The two things aren’t mutually exclusive.
HC: One thing I recall from creative writing class is to avoid being portentous. And I believe that most good comics have a lightness to them. They can be anything but they need to strike a good balance, and avoid being portentous.
JL: I’m with you on that. Ironically, the portentousness that I mostly shied away from was largely found in the mainstream superhero comics–which I couldn’t quite relate to. For the present crop, I wasn’t clicking with it. Often, this is because there is a slightly artificial heaviness to them. It’s sort of a role reversal from grown-up stuff being found among the underground and graphic novels and the funny books being there for kids. But, actually, the mainstream comic book companies are producing a lot of very jacked-up grim stuff. And, as you say, some of the most sophisticated or beguiling suggestive work that you can come across includes a certain levity or a sense of the absurd. Some frivolity is in the mix.
HC: Let’s consider some of the work included here. One that quickly comes to mind is Megan Kelso.
JL: Yeah, Megan Kelso was a great discovery. She’s so sly. It appears to be very straightforward work but the degree of compression, the way she can do so much with such a small number of pages, is very, very literary in fact.
HC: Another intriguing selection is Julia Gfrörer.
JL: That’s another intricate and evocative piece. That was a total discovery for me. I hadn’t come across her work anywhere before.
HC: I’m familiar with her work. She’s definitely on the rise.
JL: Well, she should be.
HC: It’s nice that it was printed in the book on green paper.
JL: Yes, it was a pamphlet on green paper. One of the interesting things about work like this is that it has the quality of being an artifact. Some other works in the book were either bigger or smaller than the anthology pages. Or would be silkscreened or some other printing process. It’s only an approximation to the original when we fit it into the anthology format.
HC: What would you say about your readership?
JL: More than usual, I’m on the edge of my seat to meet my readership. I know the sense of being stakeholders the comics audience has. I wonder about how they will respond and probably argue with this book in certain ways. I’m really interested in what will come out of that and what I’ll learn. I think it was crucial to feel that I was being dropped into a universe and trying to do justice to this last year. It was like a flashbulb strobe image of the landscape. My volume was one in a conversation. It was instructive to study the last few years of the volumes and see the different kind of statements that people are making with the editor’s position and the different senses you get of what the competition in the field feels like at any given moment.
HC: I wonder if cartoonists see it as a contest. I tend to think that they’ll appreciate that this volume is, like you say, part of a conversation.
JL: Well, you know, everyone who makes things is waiting for that gold star. It’s a neat job to be able to give out the gold stars once in a while. You also want to let people know that there were hundreds of submissions that were clamoring and knocking on the door to be included. In some cases, the selections were determined upon what went together in making a book out of it all, making it all flow, and making it all interesting in context. There are some pieces that I fell in love with that didn’t make it into the book.
HC: It must be great when you make these connections while putting the book together, like the two pieces with a Wonder Woman theme, one by R. Sikoryak and the other by Diane Obomsawin.
JL: There was going to be a third Wonder Woman piece, by Ron Regé Jr., but lawyers stepped in and squelched it. I was trying to give as much of a glimpse into Wonder Woman as possible especially since there had been a couple of nonfiction books on Wonder Woman in that same year.
HC: And you ran into difficulty with getting a work in by Steve Ditko.
JL: That one went down to the wire. And it led us nowhere. So, somewhere, out there, there’s a compendium worthy of Steve Ditko.
HC: Well, God bless him. Thank you for your time, Jonathan.
JL: Thank you, Henry.
You can listen to the podcast interview by clicking below: