Noah Brand interviews noted essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider on such subjects as art, language, masculinity, and the importance of Captain America.
Full disclosure: I have been a shameless fan of Tim Kreider’s work since I first discovered his taboo-wrecking cartoon The Pain—When Will It End? in my misspent youth. When the opportunity to interview him arose, I pounced on it like a kitten on a laser pointer.
Kreider has had a remarkable life and career, much of it detailed in his new book of essays and cartoons, We Learn Nothing. It’s a touching and introspective series of essays, mostly on personal matters, its frankly confessional tone leavened by Kreider’s transgressive sense of humor. I’m not saying you should go buy it, but you should probably go buy it. Just saying.
You’ve gone from being mostly a cartoonist to mostly an essayist. What, in your personal experience, is the difference between working in visual art and working purely with words?
Well, for one thing, drawing is way more fun. Drawing is inherently fun; everyone probably still remembers the sheer creative satisfaction of putting lines on paper. All children enjoy this before their aptitudes diverge and assholes like me ruin it for everyone by being better at it than everyone else. I can remember typing being fun in the same sort of way when I first learned to use my parents’ electric Olivetti, putting words on paper, making a whole page of type. I used to transcribe stories I liked for the joy of it. But these days the fun part of writing—which is the actual composition—comprises about 4% of the time I spend on it. The rest–which is wearisome, laborious rewriting and solving structural problems and figuring out what the damned essay’s about, exactly–is more fun than doing taxes or getting the car repaired, but nowhere near as fun as drinking beers or going to a matinee with your friends.
Cartooning also seems to allow me to express a much sillier, stupider, more puerile part of my personality than writing. I get all stiff and serious and writerly when I sit down to write prose. I guess because when you sit down to write you’re entering the same arena as Joseph Conrad and Cormac McCarthy, whereas when you sit down to draw a cartoon you’re doing the same job as the guy who draws Dilbert. I wish I could figure out how to integrate the two media, and those two sides of my personality, better. The guy who drew all those cartoons often seems to me now like my younger, drunker, unhappier, more hilarious brother.
Your essays speak frequently of your struggles with affiliating yourself with groups and ideals, and in “Chutes and Candyland” you refer to never feeling quite like a man in a cultural sense. How would you describe your relationship to masculinity, or images thereof?
I have to say I hadn’t thought of that as one of the underlying themes of this book, but I suppose it’s the themes you don’t put in on purpose that are probably most obvious to everyone else.
“…in a cultural sense” is an important distinction to make in the context of an essay about a friend of mine who underwent gender reassignment. Jim/Jenny never felt like a man in a very visceral, physical sense. She literally dreamed of herself as female since before she knew how to talk, even. I am a man, obviously, and never felt like I wasn’t male, nor has it ever occurred to me to want to be female (except when I wistfully imagine how slutty I would be given the opportunity). Jenny told me I’d always seemed pretty Guylike to her in some ways: I liked drinking whiskey, listening to loud music, chasing girls.
But I think most people of both sexes grow up feeling godawful pressure to conform to some unattainably narrow but elusively-defined ideal of their gender and feel hopelessly inadequate at meeting it. (One difference, as some female readers have pointed out, is that if guys fail to be masculine they become feminized–pussies, fags, etc.–whereas if women fail to be feminine they don’t become masculinized; they become nothing. Nonentities. “You can’t fail up,” is how one of them put it.) This pressure is most excruciating in adolescence, but that experience tends to haunt us the rest of our lives even after we grow up and move to cities where nobody calls you a fag for not playing sports.
I think there are, happily, a few more niches to inhabit now than there were when I was growing up. I was just talking with a friend about the fact that when we were kids, it was not cool to be a nerd. There were no nerd role models. There certainly did not exist the type of the hot nerd girl. Today, of course, the wealthiest human beings on the planet are nerds and nerd culture has, unbelievably, become the dominant culture: Star Wars, superhero films, etc, etc. It’s also become an easier world in which to be gay: there are now LGBT clubs in high schools, in was inconceivable when I was a teenager. No one in my high school was out as a homosexual; as far as we knew there were no actual homosexuals. It was like Communism in the 50s—suspected everywhere, but somehow difficult to pinpoint. I know there are still vast swaths of this country where it’s impossible to be out lest you get literally killed. But it is, in this regard at least, a slightly better world than the one I grew up in.
Some friends of mine just gave me a book called A Gentleman’s Guide to Grooming and Style to congratulate me on the release of my book. It’s really helpful with the whole Man thing. I’m learning to coordinate my pocket square with my tie. (You don’t buy the matching sets—apparently it’s tacky.)
What did you read the summer you were fourteen?
Oh good lord. So we’re talking [long pause for math] summer 1981? This would be around the time The Empire Strikes Back came out. Just trying to place it chronologically. I certainly can’t recall specific books I was reading that summer, but I can tell you that at that time in my life Ray Bradbury was very important to me; The Martian Chronicles, especially the story “—And the Moon Be Still as Bright”, was like a Bible to me. So was a YA sf author whose pen name was John Christopher—he wrote the still-popular Tripods trilogy but also a slew of other books just as good, like The Lotus Caves and Empty World. I was probably reading Stephen King by then. I was obsessed with the film The Shining, which I would remain too young to see except in Bowdlerized-for-TV form for another four years. And my father had gotten me a subscription to the trade journal of special effects, Cinefex, because I was making my own animated movies. I’m sure I was reading some movie novelizations by Alan Dean Foster. It would be much cooler to say I was precociously reading Seneca like a little Seymour Glass but in truth I had pretty typical nerdy-kid tastes for my age and demographic. If you saw Super 8, I essentially was those kids, down to the glow-in-the-dark plastic Quasimodo model kit.
Your cartoons are noted for some of the most attentive and detailed lettering in the medium; what made you lavish attention on that aspect of the craft, which is so often neglected or minimized?
I think my use of cursive titles with drop shadows came from my cartoonist hero, B. Kliban. I didn’t so much consciously imitate him as I just assumed without thinking about it that that’s what cartoon titles ought to look like. I also have to mention the influence of Dave Sim’s expressive lettering in Cerebus. If you’re an artistic control freak like I am it’s gratifying to realize that you can more or less dictate line readings in your audience’s heads by making the lettering and even the shapes of the word balloons emote for you.
But I suppose this is also a way to make writing as much fun as drawing—by effectively turning it into drawing. Which is why some embarrassing “typos,” if I can call them that, occasionally snuck into my captions: I got so absorbed in drawing the words that I was no longer thinking of what I was inscribing as language but shapes.
Longtime fanboy question here: talk to me about your relationship to Captain America.
Seldom do interviewers ask you the sorts of questions you’ve longed your whole life to be asked, and for this I thank you.
Unlike a lot of cartoonists, I actually read comics when they were age-appropriate for me and then moved on, but I still have the same unapologetic affection for them that I do for other books I loved when I was young. I was a Marvel kid, and I’ve always loved Captain America (though of course we all have a soft spot for the everlovin’ Thing). There was a pure, martyrish aspect to his character that must’ve resonated with my Christian upbringing. Cap was always sacrificing himself for the team. (I was glad that the recent movies featuring the character captured some of that sense of innocence and sweetness.) I particularly remember an image of him bound and kneeling at the edge of a plank sticking off the side of a skyscraper, at the mercy of some moustachioed blowhard Avengers-wannabe villain called The Swordsman, who was threatening to kill Cap if the rest of the Avengers didn’t make him their leader or bow down to him or something. Cap just stoically threw himself off the building rather than let the rest of the group be held hostage. It was shocking and magnificent in a self-effacing/ Christlike/ code-of-the-samurai way. Also it was a cliffhanger ending and I don’t think I ever got the next issue, so in my mind Cap is still tumbling to his noble death, though I assume he survived somehow. I know I read this around the time I was still learning to read for myself, so I was quite young. It made an impression on me.
Years later, when I became a political cartoonist, Captain America was a good symbol for the best ideals of America, its freedom and egalitarianism and decency, as opposed to its ugly imperial realpolitik self. I just got into a heated argument with cartoonist Karl Stevens at a bar last night when he called Captain America “the ultimate tool.” These, to me, are fighting words. I told him about the whole phase in the ‘70s when Captain America got disillusioned by Vietnam and segregation and was like, Maybe these hippies are onto something after all, and he renounced his role and became a hero called Nomad, the man without a country, for a while, before realizing that he could serve as an embodiment of the American dream rather than its institutions. (Yes these are the kinds of fights cartoonists get into. I think I maybe won Karl over.) All of which I mention by way of saying that there is some precedent for using Cap as an antiestablishment icon. It was a great pleasure to draw him socking the überputz George W. Bush in the jaw, just as he’d clocked that rat Hitler sixty years before.
But the truth of the matter is I just loved drawing Cap when I was a little kid and I still do. He’s got a great costume, with both chain mail and feathers. I am still secretly sort of mad they did not give him feathers on his head in the movie. (Editorial note: on this latter point, Mr. Kreider and Mr. Brand are in full agreement.)
Flash forward: you’re dead, and someone is drawing the editorial cartoon about the death of well-known writer and artist Tim Kreider. Because they have no imagination, you’re at the gates of heaven and St. Peter is asking you why they should let you in, what justifies your life as a good man. You’re pointing to something in one of your books and saying “This right here, Pete, now open the damn gate.” What are you pointing to?
I think I would probably try to conceal all evidence of my life as a cartoonist, though I suppose everything inevitably comes out in the end and the cover-up only makes things harder on you. If I had to point to one of my cartoons as evidence of my good deeds it would probably be the one graphically illustrating the disparity between American casualties on 9/11 and Iraqi casualties since our invasion (“We Even Yet?”). It was a piece of information I never saw represented anywhere else in the U.S. media. It felt vaguely treasonous to draw it so I knew it was the right thing to do. My fellow Americans’ bloodlust after 9/11 disgusted me (Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, says in the movie: “I don’t want to kill anybody”) and I wanted to call them to account for it, or at least make them face it in stark numerical terms.
I worry less about defending my new book of essays to God than I do about defending it to the people, living and dead, whom I wrote about. All I can say about that is that, in the cases of almost all the people I chose to write about, I did so because I loved them. Even if I was critical of them or described them in terms they wouldn’t agree with. Nietzsche wrote a whole book called The Case Against Wagner and it’s obvious he had to write it because he loved and idolized Wagner and needed, somehow, to break away from him and overcome his overpowering influence.
But if I were allowed to draw on ancillary documents (which I have to say I don’t imagine St. Peter being real lenient about once he’d gotten a look at cartoons like “Graveyard Shift at the Pussy Juice Factory” or “Negropolis”) I would just submit a letter I’ve saved from a young artist who credited me with inspiring her to get out of her crappy bigoted post-working-class neighborhood where the only future was in fast food and go to art school. At low moments I try to console myself that much of the good you do in the world, at least if you’re an artist, is inadvertent, beyond your control, and quite possibly outside your knowledge.
But all kidding aside I’m probably going to Hell after a very summary initial hearing. I am a lazy, selfish, indulgent person and even judged on Works rather than Faith do not make the cut. And if God is really the kind of guy who’d come up with some insane system of eternal reward/punishment I can’t see Him cutting me much slack for feeble good intentions.
Images courtesy Tim Kreider