From Apartamento comes All The Things I Know, by New York City artist Zebadiah Keneally. This is a most audacious 380-page epic of a graphic novel that explores what it means to be human, especially when the world is on the brink of collapse.
I’ll say here that this book is a big deal. It is both a whimsical and serious work which tackles profound issues while also being fun and highly accessible. As you will learn from this interview, it’s a long process that requires dedication to do right. Zebadiah Keneally is coming to it from a fine arts background which is a distinct plus since it just means more tools to work with. There are many more layers of things going on, including video and performance. In fact, Keneally’s performing as the characters in the book is a whole thing all to itself.
There’s so much to be said about this monumental work. It was provided to me in a PDF preview and, I must say, it’s even better when you get your hands on the actual book! Keneally has tackled the great graphic novel with all he’s got as an artist and writer. It is a mashup of a quirky shaggy dog kind of story and a great epic fable. Anything is possible when you have gods and humans at odds with each other. And, at the center of it all (or at least he’d like to think so), Hamburger Vampire, a mad villain of monstrous proportions, both tragic and comical. This is a new generation’s weird comics, a new voice calling out to anyone who will listen that it’s time to wake up and live your best life.
So, yeah, I highly recommend that you get this book. Just go over to Apartamento for the details. It’s a big book but I’m working off this theory that people love a big book with big ideas. This is one of those monumental graphic novels, with lots going on, and it definitely benefits from taking the time to get to know it better. Take it with you to a cafe, or to the beach. Really, this worked for me.
Once I took the time and leisurely read this on the beach, I began to connect the dots, and felt equally enlightened and entertained. And then, to top it off, I got the chance to interview the creator. There’s a lot of things that go into a good interview: lots of prep work; and even a bit of luck as things come together during a conversation. That said, I hope you enjoy this chat, conducted on Zoom and email follow-up, and welcome a new rising star in the world of art-comics.
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Thank you for joining me for this interview.
ZEBADIAH KENEALLY: It’s a honor that you’d want to talk about my book. It’s really cool.
I want to start with a question from out of left field. Tell us about Detective Lovebeard. I swear to you, I seem to have zoned out that heart-shaped beard when I first read your book as a PDF. Of course, I saw it but I didn’t read it for all its worth. If that makes sense. Can you chat about this character?
Interesting! Well, I studied printmaking as an undergraduate and I got involved with a community print studio. I was playing around with the chine collé technique and came up with this image of two heart-shaped beards with sunglasses. For some reason, that really stuck with me. I was mashing things together for my characters. Part of what propels my graphic novel is a murder committed by the character Pittsburgh Cat. Lovebeard pursues him. He becomes this symbol of logic and reason. I wanted to explore that kind of thinking being taken to the extreme and reaching a breaking point.
Imagine that you’re at the grand opening of an art show presenting pages from your book. How would you describe it to a passersby audience?
My elevator pitch goes something like this: All The Things I Know is the story of an evil villain bent on world domination and mind control who goes by the name of Hamburger Vampire. He is a snake oil salesman and capitalist par excellence. His attempts to control the world are foiled by none other than God. He gets resentful and hires Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto, out of retirement in Hades, to help him kidnap God so that he can control the world.
Meanwhile, a failed artist and down-and-out drug addict, Pittsburgh Cat, bottoms out on the beach in Miami. After accidentally killing a motel proprietor, he’s pursued by Miami’s most revered detective, Lovebeard. Pittsburgh Cat meets God on the beach. God takes him through a wormhole, right in front of the detective’s eyes. His world-view begins to crumble as he pursues Pittsburgh Cat through mystic circumstances. They end up meeting Lara, the librarian. And together, they team up to save the world from Hamburger Vampire.
It sounds to me like you had more fun answering the first question!
Well, that’s marketing for you. It’s essential. You need to support your book.
I was performing a bit with that last answer.
Let’s explore the book, get lost in the pages. If a reader relaxes with it, all sorts of treats are revealed. How long does it take you to create a typical page?
About four to five hours. Especially the right page you’re on now depicting a pharmaceutical factory and that hand of a doctor writing a prescription. That was a very involved drawing. The timeline on the creation of this book is nonlinear. And these pages you’re looking at were drawn in 2016. At the time I was drawing a lot on the commute to and from work. These pages were drawn on the New York City subway.
Wow. I love knowing that! I’m trying to imagine you on the train. How big are these pages?
Not much bigger than what they look like in the book. 19 by 28 centimeters, or 7 by 10 inches.
What sort of pen do you use?
I drew these with a Micron #8.
A lot of artists will relate to that. I marvel over the busy energy to these pages, like Pittsburgh Cat rolling through the landscape. Or here’s an example that depicts an absurdly cluttered room but the actual style of drawing is very clean and precise.
Even though I went to art school, in a lot of ways, I taught myself to draw. I threw out a lot of the rules for figure/ground relationship. Everything is in focus. I don’t draw in a way that will lower the contrast in the middleground or background. Everything is crystal clear. When I imagine one of these scenes, I imagine every single little detail, which can make my drawings feel a little overwhelming to surrender to. But it feels honest in how this stuff exists within me.
I wanted to add something about Pittsburgh Cat that you’d mentioned about him rolling. There’s that intervention he has with God on that cliff that begins this rolling process. This scene came to me in a dream. It was a technicolor cartoon dream. One of the only ones I’ve ever had. I woke up in the middle of the night kind of stunned. This was how Pittsburgh Cat was introduced to me. These panels happened. This is the recording of my dream. And, at the end of the dream, when he lands on the beach in Miami, this logo screen came up and it said, “Pittsburgh Cat,” and it showed his face, in these pulsating bubble letters. I asked myself, Who is this? What’s happening here? And I actively began to imagine where the story went from there.
That’s wonderful, so genuine. There’s patterns running throughout the book, whether it’s eyeballs or other repeated imagery, like here, with a hand pointing. You’ve got Hamburger Vampire in the forefront. His right hand is pointing at Corporate Woman. And his left hand is agitated, pointing with a hand repeated three times at the elevator button. Can you tell us something about composing a panel like this?
I grew up watching Looney Toons and Tom & Jerry, those kind of classic cartoons. There are emphasized moments when, for example, a character’s eyes will jump out of their head or they’ll take off running and their first few steps will be moving in place before they move through space. I always loved that effect. Honestly, I don’t think I’m good enough a draftsman to render that stuff the way other artists have done but I still wanted to try to capture that essence. The page you’re referring to, it was an essential plot point but visually it was missing some motion and energy. So, I’ll often employ that technique of repeated imagery.
Of course, I love all the things you do with the dope vape motif. It’s not just the hipsters, even the mayor is hooked on dope vape!
And it just keeps building. Finally, you’ve got a mob of people, dancing in step, like a scene from Thriller, all hooked on dope vape.
Some years ago, in Brooklyn, this street drug, Bath Salts, got really popular. There’s this notoriously hectic subway transfer point, Myrtle/Broadway. At the peak of the Bath Salts epidemic, there were addict zombies lining the streets. Bath Salts had the effect of paralyzing people, similar to heroin. It was a pretty horrific sight. It’s one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction moments. It captured my imagination and pointed out to me the kind of desperation that is prevalent in the culture, the need to escape from all the pressures that exist at this moment in time. That subtext was a way to underscore conceptually what I wanted Dope Vape to represent in the story.
What I’ve observed from a lot of comics critics, is that they embrace a certain kind of weird. Everyone will bow down to Gary Panter, for example. But for the new kids on the block, they’ll be harder on them. How are you handling this as your book goes out into the world?
That’s a tough question for me to answer. I immediately thought about your comment (in your review in The Comics Journal) about the scatological God. That particular scene had been inspired by a portion of Carl Jung’s autobiography where he relays this, hardly offensive, dream of God defecating on a cathedral, and how that began his trajectory as an eminent psychologist. His thinking has influenced me a lot so it was important for me to make a nod there. In that sense, I believe I’ve experienced more of that tougher eye.
On the other hand, I feel very much like an outsider in the comics world because I’ve come into it from a fine arts background. When I took on this graphic novel project, it challenged me as to who I was for a bit. Aside from your review in The Comics Journal, I feel that it hasn’t been noticed at all in the comics community at large. I don’t feel like I’m a part of that community at this point.
I’m happy to be taken to task on my review. I think I might be on to something when I say that it can be hard for people to accept the new weird, not that your work is only “weird,” but it’s something new, the new kid on the block.
I’m grateful for getting a chance to see your work in the first place. Of course, a PDF is a completely legitimate way to read something but not ideal in many ways. Not to overstate this, but I’m so happy to have gotten to experience your book in print. Reading an actual book helped me catch all the details and truly appreciate what you’ve accomplished.
Well, I’m happy to hear that, Henry.
I wanted to say something about how you handle the human figure. It’s all very artfully done, very beautifully done, gorgeously clean work. Were you ever at a crossroads when you had to confront drawing the gods nude?
Honestly, it really wasn’t a question for me.
There you go.
(Laughter) I wrote a script for this first and it’s more pages than the graphic novel and the gods figured large into that script. At one point, before I started drawing, I thought, I’m going to have to draw these guys naked a lot. I’ve always been taken by the human form and loved figure drawing when I was in my twenties and obsessed over rendering bodies and strong lines. There’s something primal and unabashed about how the gods behave and conduct themselves that their full frontal nudity corroborates.
Yes! I wholeheartedly agree. I think more cartoonists should embrace the human form. I think you just draw so well. It reminds me at times of Mary Fleener. You could say you’re a new generation’s Mary Fleener. Well, you’re doing your own thing and so well. I can’t emphasize that enough.
We’ll go through some more pages. Here’s one with Lovebeard in the library. It’s so gorgeous. You’ve drawn every single book there.
It’s so nice to hear you point that out. I look at the work of other artists and admire the way they edit and leave out details. I’ve tried to embrace the less-is-more approach but it never feels right to me. At heart, I’m a maximalist!
You’re not overthinking it. That’s just your natural way of tackling things. Did you ever worry if it was all going to come together, through the years of work, or did a certain rhythm sustain you?
Sometimes I wondered if it would all come together. I began working on the first draft around 2009-2010 and it was a slow process and I didn’t get very far. By 2012, I really started working on this story. I drew in a much looser and gestural way, about 450 pages. I was trying to tell the whole story only through drawings. But it seemed like I’d weaved something together that wasn’t working.
I began drawing another version in 2016. I was doing these very detailed time-consuming drawings, without a script. I found that the pace I was at was preventing me from telling my story. I set it aside but it wouldn’t leave me alone. When the pandemic hit and lock down began, I knew this was the time to write the script and that would guide the drawings. I began that process. I had enough drawings from the 2016 version to make a pitch to Apartamento and they, to my surprise, picked it up.
This provided the opportunity to work from the script and translate it into drawings. That was a total task. At many points, I was uncertain about getting everything into the drawings based on the groundwork I’d created in words. I had to do a lot of editing and get rid of a lot of favorite plot lines. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it and stunned when I’d completed it!
Is there something you could tell us about Hamburger Vampire, since the character goes so far back into work?
I moved to New York City in 2009 and I got a job delivering mail to Goldman Sachs. I’d graduated college just before the recession had hit. Work was hard to come by. And suddenly I’d found myself working for this bank that had a huge role in this financial crisis. I felt like I was working in the gates of hell to some extent.
I would hide out in a janitor’s closet on the 26th floor and draw when it was slow in the mail room. And, all of a sudden, as I was reassociating, there before me was a hamburger with a lettuce mustache and vampire fangs. I looked at it and said, “Oh, that’s Hamburger Vampire.” He immediately became an evil entrepreneur: just that kind of greed; that self-serving desire to the max. I really wanted to look at what that would look like for an individual who had no compunction about running roughshod over anyone to get their way. That must have been around 2009-2010 that he was served up to me on a platter. His characteristics, I imagined, were always related to Donald Trump: so that kind of gregarious/mafioso con man–with a lot of power.
Can you describe your relationship with Apartamento. They hadn’t done a graphic novel before your book. How did that come about?
It came about quite naturally. I had made a zine with a publisher out of Zurich, called Nieves Books. And through that I got introduced to the executive editor at Apartamento, Robbie Whitehead. Robbie asked me to illustrate their annual cookbook which they do as fundraiser for a cancer foundation in Barcelona. I was so excited about that opportunity and brought everything I had to that project. We did a Zoom interview to discuss that cookbook and they had seen all the things I’d been doing and wanted to know more about me as an artist. There was no way to talk about that without talking about Hamburger Vampire, who is a character that I’ve done a number of videos and performances as over the years. I discussed my graphic novel and Robbie was interested. It took a while to get everyone on board but it all worked out.
Can you give us a little taste of your experience working with art galleries?
What is essential is getting involved with communities of artists. For example, when I was younger, it was being part of a group of artists at the Robert Blackburn printmaking workshop in Manhattan. From there, I met artists working on independent risograph publishing and I got to collaborate with them. They would put on exhibitions and I would perform at a bunch of those. I would go to a lot of gallery openings of people that I knew from the print shop, from college or who I had met a party.
So, I’d just meet people, make friends, invite them to my studio. You build connections with people who are doing creative things. The opportunities to show in galleries grow from those friendships and connections. Jacqueline, who runs Good Naked, is really wonderful. She saw my work on Instagram. She had made a decision to start a gallery at that point and she DM’d me and asked if she could come visit the studio. I showed her some drawings that ended up in this book, among other things. We had a conversation and discovered we had similar values in things in regards to art: being genuine and playful with a certain entertainment bent to it. She invite me to paint a mural in her gallery. That gave me an opportunity to scale up; most of my drawings are pretty intimate, you know, 8.5 by 11 or 10 by 7. It was really exciting to go big–and have a wall!
As we wrap up, let me ask you about the title of the book, All The Things I Know. That begs the question as to what this book means to you. What does the title mean and what are “all the things” that you know now, after all these years, from having created this book?
It’s a funny title, All The Things I Know. It gives the impression of being a memoir which this book isn’t in any practical sense. Around the time I started working on this story, I had had an idea about a performance that went like this: I lock myself in a studio for an unspecified period of time, cover the walls with paper and endeavor to write all the things I know, not leaving until I had completed my task. I didn’t have the gall to actually do that, and I got obsessed with the characters in the story so I threw myself into that. I had no idea what to call this book I found myself working on, so I decided to call it All The Things I Know, after this zany performance art idea I thought I wanted to do. Fast forward a year into working on the first draft and I realized that all the characters were me – or aspects of my psyche. I did the long division and saw that they represented my desires: for the material, for the intellectual, for the spiritual (Hamburger Vampire, Lovebeard and Pittsburg Cat respectively). With them, I was imagining what the collision of these drives might look like; I began to understand the book as a psychic memoir. When it came time to finalize the title 10 years later, I’d been calling the book All The Things I Know for so long that I could not imagine titling it anything else, despite my worries about misleading readers. Wanting to ground the title in the story, I wrote it into a scene where Pittsburgh Cat bemoans the rapidly shifting tides of his life, saying to God, “Listen dude, I don’t know what I know anymore. All the things I know … or thought I knew have been eviscerated–” That’s more or less how I feel, after all these years, having created this book.
Thank you so much, Zebadiah.
Thank you, Henry.