Poised somewhere between underground cult status and mainstream success, Brandon Graham is one of those rare cartoonists; producing deeply individual creator owned material in an environment that all too often turns its nose up at anything that doesn't fit into a spandex bodysuit.
He's survived corporate reshuffles, the cancellation of his series 'King City' and even a bout of cancer. In the face of overwhelming odds, he's continued to forge his own path, making unique comics on his own terms.
Graham bridges the gap between underground comix, manga and street art to produce dizzyingly detailed and refreshingly fun comics. His pages bristle with an explosive energy that threatens to run off in a million different directions all at once, yet his stories hang together with zen like cohesion. His comics reflect the ordered chaos of modern life, both serious and funny, ugly and beautiful.
With his successfully resurrected series 'King City' now fast approaching its conclusion, I went in search of Seattle's very own catmaster, seeking ancient comix wisdom.
Exquisite Things: You often describe King City as a spy comic about friendship and getting over heartbreak. Twelve issues in, do you still see the comic in the same way, or has the scope of the book evolved as you’ve gone along?
Brandon Graham: It's still about friendship and dealing with life, but over the course of the series I also got really into it being a reaction to living in cities. Originally I wanted to call the comic ‘Catmaster’ but Tokyopop asked me to change the title. I think that it being named after the place really affected how I went about it. I remember my first reaction to the name change being “shit, now they can't leave the city”.
Exquisite Things: I think the city itself is half the charm of the comic. Do you find you draw on your own surroundings and experiences when creating the urban sprawl of King City?
Brandon Graham: Yeah, a lot of King City is a reflection of how I feel about Seattle and New York.
I remember one time after being gone from Seattle for months, taking the bus from the airport and getting off in my old West Seattle neighbourhood. The first guy I walked past asked me for a smoke, when I said I didn't smoke he yells "yeah you better keep walking!"
The nonsensical abuse of a city.
I've lived in big cities my whole life and they still amaze me, just how much is going on all at once and the history of what’s gone on in any one place. I remember walking through Seattle's china town with a friend of mine explaining how all these plain looking buildings we were passing had great histories; how one had a secret gambling den in the basement years ago, or how Bruce lee had worked as a waiter in another. I want to try to capture some of that feeling of mystery in my stuff.
Exquisite Things: Tokyopop went through a fairly dramatic restructure in 2008, which saw the cancellation of many titles including King City. You’re now working in partnership with Image comics to release it as single issues. Was it always your intention to present King City in this format and how instrumental were Image in getting the comic back on track?
Brandon Graham: The whole thing would have been impossible without Image, those guys really put in the work to talk Tokyopop into a co publishing deal. I can't say enough nice things about the guys at Image. Eric Stephenson and Joe Keatinge especially, It was 8 months of meetings for a book that I don't think they expected to make much, if any money at all.
Getting it put out as single issues was ideal. It's how I like to read comics.
Exquisite Things: Was it difficult coming back to King City after such an extended hiatus? I know you had a lot to deal with in the interim period, including a bout of cancer, which isn't exactly something you recover from fast. That, and all the red tape around getting the series up and running again must have been a lot to have to contend with.
Brandon Graham: Yeah, it was a lot to wade through in the course of getting the series done.
I feel like whatever comic I'm doing, life is always going to get in the way. I've gotten pretty used to switching gears, it's kind of the nature of the beast. I try to focus on whatever page or scene I'm on. Coming back to the characters was easy, it was more reminding myself what the plans for the plot were, which I just ended up rewriting anyway.
I have this idea that there's a time limit on ideas, so if I let them sit for too long I need to come up with new ones so they're fresh enough to execute how I'd planned. If anything the cancer and legal shit were grist for the mill. I'd probably be worse off if nothing exciting ever got in the way of making comics, I'd have less to write about.
Exquisite Things: King City has an incredibly distinct visual identity, one which draws on everything from classic European sci-fi comics to street art. There’s an economy of line to your work that’s reminiscent of Tezuka, but with a penchant for sprawling, highly detailed backdrops in the vein of European artists like Moebius. Whilst it's clear that you've drawn inspiration from a diverse range of sources, you’ve definitely got your own unique artistic style. Could you tell us a little about your influences and how you developed your present style?
Brandon Graham: I was exposed to a ton of great comics really early on. My older brother Keith brought home a lot of European, Japanese and underground comics when we were growing up. I don't think I'll ever get over what he had on his book shelves. My brother being into all kinds of underground culture just gave me this idea that you have to dig for the best stuff.
I was mostly influenced by manga as a teenager, and I remember my brother giving me grief about my drawings being too based around big eyes. He had me draw a page of facial expressions showing emotions in non cliché ways. And later, when I was 19 I did a series called October Yen with Antarctic press about a robot without a face to force myself into showing emotions without the crutch of a face.
In my late teens I was really into the Seattle graffiti scene. That was a huge influence on my outlook on art and style.
Exquisite Things: How did you first get involved in street art, and how did those experiences make it back into your comics?
Brandon Graham: As much as I always liked comics and always identified myself as a comic artist there wasn't any kind of comic scene that I was involved with in Seattle. Plus there was so much exciting stuff going on in Graffiti in the 90's, it was hard to ignore. When I started getting seriously into it, my pal Ludroe was adamant that if I was was going to do it, I would have to understand it. So he gave me all these books on the history of hip hop and really pushed the idea that it's a culture that you have to earn to be part of.
Also, just the snarky fun of running around drawing on things that you aren't supposed to. I remember one day, back when Magic cards were a big deal there was a Wizards of the Coast building in Seattle's U district, with a sandwich board in front of it that had a clear plastic cover, with and ad for whatever they were promoting at the time. Ludroe pulled the paper out of it, flipped it over and put it back with a giant hand with its middle finger up drawn on it. And then we just sat on the corner and cracked up seeing this big fuck you sign on the street.
Plus it seems like graffiti is really a cousin of comics. Aside from it being so influenced by comics, they're both about combining words and drawings.
Exquisite Things: Vaughn Bode is one of the few cartoonists whose work seems to have become synonymous with graffiti art. Was his work an inspiration to you in any way?
Brandon Graham: Bode was a huge influence on graffiti, he didn't really live to see how much he affected an entire art form. But yeah, he's a big influence on my stuff, his use of color and letters and that great sense of humor in his work. There's this one strip where a lizard is staring at a phallic looking robot and says "you look like a god damn tin penis" I can't even think about that without cracking up.
I think doing one page comics as well as he did is really amazing. I think about that density a lot; how Bode and George Herriman, who did Krazy Kat, are able to convey such complete stories in just one page. With work like that out there you've got no excuse for not making a 20 page comic dense and fun.
Exquisite Things: King City reminds me a little of Carla Speed McNeil’s series ‘Finder’, specifically in the way that you treat the city as a character unto itself. There’s a level of detail to your environments that makes the city just as interesting as its inhabitants. How important is world building to King City?
Brandon Graham: I really like what McNeil does, she's amazing. Playing around with the environments your characters live in is so much fun. It's hard to leave that kind of thing alone once you realize that you can tell a story about anything you want to. You can’t help wanting to delve into what's behind all the doors and windows that you've drawn.
Exquisite Things: You seem just as interested in the incidental and the random as you are with the overarching plot of King City. The comic is both dense AND decompressed without being at odds with itself. How on earth do you go about achieving that balance?
Brandon Graham: It's really important to me to go with my interest rather than just follow a plot. I try to have as much fun as I can, but I also try to make issues that hold up by themselves. There's a Raymond Chandler introduction that I always think about where he talks about wanting his books to be good even if you read a copy that’s missing the beginning and the end.
That’s one of the reasons I have chapters in King City. I want the chapters to hold up by themselves, even if they’re just two pages long. Plus I was so used to writing short stories, so it was less daunting to treat it as a bunch of shorter chapters, rather than some 12 issue monster.
Exquisite Things: Taking a moment to focus on the cast of King City, I wanted to ask about Joe and his multi-talented cat Earthling J. Catingsworth III. Earthling’s quite the sidekick, enough to make anyone want a super intelligent weaponised feline companion. How did you first come up with the whole ‘Catmaster’ concept? Mastering a cat can’t be easy…
Brandon Graham: The original idea was to create a James Bond type character in a suit. He’d have a suitcase with a serious weapon in it… and when he pulls it out… it's just a cat!
Exquisite Things: Now I’m stuck with the mental image of Sean Connery wielding a cat. So… how did you get from that, to a main character like Joe?
Brandon Graham: In that early version, the owls were the main focus and the catmaster was just a side character. I abandoned it about ten pages in but I liked the idea of a catmaster, so I tried to come up a character I could relate to.
Joe was based on a photo of a surfer I saw, that and old 70's Savage Sword Conan.
Exquisite Things: Your wife Marian Churchland and Ludroe both designed their own cat masters for the comic, both of which showed up in issue eleven. How did those designs come about?
Brandon Graham: I wanted the other catmasters to feel like they were main characters in their own stories. Also I thought it would be cool to let my friends who I'd based so much of the story on to have a stab at it. I wish I'd had more pages to add in side stories and extras by other friends.
When I was working on initial characters for the book I based Pete’s character on Ludroe's personality. Physically there’s no resemblance, Ludroe's a thinner guy than Pete, and it’s hard to tell in the comic but Pete is meant to be Thai. His full name is Pete Thaifighter. So when Ludroe gave me his catmaster character design it was interesting that he also made him a chubby dude. So I ended up having two characters based on the same person, just different aspects of that person.
The other catmaster that shows up is based on Marian's best friend Claire that lives down the street from us. She's the Vancouver BC catmaster. I had big plans to show even more cat masters from all over.
Exquisite Things: Speaking of ladies, King City has its fair share of gorgeous women, and certainly doesn’t shy away from sex. What surprised me about the book’s erotic content was the way you approached it, in so much that it actually adds depth to the characters and their relationships. I get the impression you’re not overly interested in ‘cheesecake’ for the sake of it? At least not in a comic like King City...
Brandon Graham: Sure, I really like drawing and looking at that stuff but I don't want to be just some pin up dude just drawing empty women.
Exquisite Things: I can understand you wouldn’t want to be type cast in that way. I know you’ve also worked on adult comics like 'Perverts of the Unknown' and 'Pillow Fight' but there’s still a level of depth to those that makes them very entertaining comics in their own right. You seem to take immense pleasure in simply having fun with the medium, adult orientated or not.
Brandon Graham: Thanks, those were fun to do. I wanted to make dirty joke books instead of something just to masturbate to. I do feel like I never quite got everything I wanted into my porn comics. They seems to require a very different kind of comic science, with closer shots and more facial expressions.
I wish I'd made the characters more diverse in Pillow Fight, but they all kind of seem to look like the same girl. At the time they were the only paying work in comics I could get, but in retrospect I'm glad I was doing that and not some low end superhero comics. It did give me the freedom to have as much fun as I could... as long as there was sex.
Exquisite Things: Do you foresee a time when there's a more widespread acceptance of sexually explicit content in mainstream comics? What do you make of recent attempts, such as Alan Moore’s Lost Girls to present porn as something with genuine artistic and emotional value?
Brandon Graham: I do think sex is something worthy of real and expressive art. It's defiantly a big part of being human. I'm hoping to do some work in the future that has more sex, but where it isn't the main focus of the book. As far as widespread acceptance, I imagine not... these Romans are crazy.
Exquisite Things: Do you believe that porn and serious storytelling can co-exist side by side? Given your background with adult comics is this something that interests you?
Brandon Graham: I definitely think the two can co-exist, and there are plenty of books where it’s been done really well. I'm trying a minor version of that in my next book ‘Multiple Warheads’.
The focus is on the relationship between a couple, but I'll also be including sex scenes as and when they happen. I do worry that a few pages of sex might be enough to overpower the content of the rest of the book, but I think it's something worth doing.
Recently I've been reading ‘Omaha the Cat Dancer’ where the mix of the two is done very well. There also this web comic called ‘Effort Comics’, which gets it right too.
Exquisite Things: It's good to hear that Multiple Warhead will be returning to the racks, that's exciting stuff. Can you tell us a little more about where you're going with it?
Brandon Graham: I'm about 70 pages into it right now and I'm having a great time with it.
It's set in a fictional future fantasy Russia and it's about an organ smuggler named Sexica and her boyfriend Nikoli, who has a werewolf penis sewn onto him. When he sleeps he dreams of the wolf’s old life. They also have a car in it named Lenin (because it's not Stalin) and as the story goes on the car’s parts get replaced with different animal parts, so it slowly turns into a living thing.
It's a lot more complex than anythijng I've done before, and where King city had a limited amount of issues I could see myself making 'Multiple Warheads' books for another 10 to 15 years.
Exquisite Things: Coming back to King City for a moment, now that the series is approaching its 12th, and possibly final issue, how do you feel about the series as a whole? I sincerely hope we'll be seeing more King City in the future?
Brandon Graham: It's really forced me to mature into a real adult comic artist as opposed to the porn comics "adult" artist I've been in the past.
In the last issue I have a scene that happens in front of the same row of vending machines that I drew in the first issue, and just drawing the same place was so completely different because of how I draw now.
I hope I'll be able to do more of it too. The rights are just screwy with Tokyopop but I've got some plans for short comics with Joe and the cat, even if they just show up on my Livejournal.
Exquisite Things: Is there likely to be a new TPB collection which encompasses the entire run? I heard rumours of a lavish French boxed set… Should we all start brushing up on our French?
Brandon Graham: The French have put out the first book so far, they mentioned a box set but they've only just got the last pages recently. They’ve really put in some work translating it all, they even redid all the graffiti in the backgrounds.
I'm not sure about an English language collection yet, I'd like there to be one. Like I said, the rights to the book are a mess. Part of me likes how it’s just single issues right now, but I realize it's not the easiest comic to get hold of. A collection would help with that.
Exquisite Things: Besides King City and Multiple Warheads, do have you got any other projects on the boil right now?
I've got a 300 page collection of some of my older stuff and a bunch of art that I'll hopefully get together soon. There's always a ton of side stuff that I hope to get to. I've got a detective thing called 'Rain like Hammers' that I want to do as a one shot after I get a big chunk of Multiple warheads out there.
Brandon Graham: Are there any comics that are blowing your mind right now? Any creators you feel are doing real groundbreaking stuff?
Oh yeah, there's a ton. One of the things that frustrates me about the comics industry is that I can name 50 amazing artists but if I go into a comic store this week there's a good chance I'd find nothing new that I wanted.
I like my pal James Stokoe’s ‘Orc Stain’ a lot and Adam Warren’s ‘Empowered’ has been really fun. ‘The Dammed’ that Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt are doing is also good stuff. I also just read ‘Monsters’ by Ken Dahl, that's a really fantastic book.
Here's a few links of some artist I'm really excited about right now:
Jordyn F. Bochon
and my misses, Marian Churchland
Exquisite Things: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me, any closing remarks or shout outs?
Brandon Graham: Thanks for letting me talk at you.
As much as I may have issues with the industry at times, I really think it's a great time to be reading and making comics.
And I'll howl at Meathaus--my old NYC comic book gang!
Interview by Matthew Dick, with thanks and kudos to Brandon Graham.
Brandon Graham's Live Journal