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How much has your family influenced your work? There was a lot of fighting and yelling in my working class household growing up. We were all competing, trying to one-up each other. My father was a sweet man who wanted to be a priest before immigrating to the United States from Lithuania. My mother also from Lithuania, was a very young and tightly wound woman. She loved stories and playing and encouraged my artistic endeavors as best as she could. I inherited her imagination, though hers was light and moral while mine was dark and subversive. Which works (art, TV, comics,) left a mark on you as a kid? At my youngest I loved The Wizard of Oz, Peanuts, and Bugs Bunny. Later I discovered The Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Mark Twain, and Krazy Kat. Discovering old Dick Tracy comics in my early teens was a revelation. I loved how hard and violent they were while at the same time looking very stylized and cartoony. I discovered underground comics in the early 70’s and decided that’s what I wanted to do. After some dead-end jobs you decide to attend the School of Visual Arts in New York City. What are your memories of the time? They were great times learning about art and discovering how fun New York City was in the 70’s and 80’s. I devoured art in the museums and galleries and film in the revival houses. I often found the possibilities of art overwhelming. I didn’t know if I should stick to my idea of being a cartoonist or paint, do sculpture, film, or animation. I made a bunch of like-minded friends, went out to punk rock clubs, and started getting my comics published. You start to develop Underworld in early 90’s. How was the comic born? I was making a small living doing illustration work and seriously thinking of quitting comics altogether. Comics took so long to write and draw and the financial return was very small. One night at a party, the art editor of The New York Press asked me if I’d be interested in creating a comic strip for the paper. Maybe I could handle a weekly comic strip. I spent a few weeks developing Underworld. I knew I wanted to do a humor strip. I decided that the background for the comic would be the low rent urban decay that I grew up around in Hoboken and Jersey City. And my two main characters would be a pair of struggling small time criminals (one of them being a talking rat). But I also gave myself the freedom to create new star characters and one-shot ideas. Then later, the characters themselves would suggest ideas to me and take on a life of their own. I took the name, Underworld from Josef von Sternberg’s 1927 silent gangster film. The influence from daily strips and animated cartoons is apparent throughout the series… I wanted a look that was immediately recognizable as funny. I took the shapes and cartoon spare parts from comics history and rearranged them and subverted them. If it made me laugh I used it. I actually thought of Underworld as an underground comics parody of daily newspaper comics when I started. Where does the inspiration for the stories come from? Everywhere. From overheard conversations on the street to reimagining other comic strips I’ve seen through a funhouse mirror. But mostly I sit down and ask myself how I’m feeling and then try to filter that feeling through cartoon characters and find the funny or the sad, or the bittersweet or the absurd. Junkies, rats, waste dumps contrast with your clean style and your ability to work with iconic characters. Contrast is at the heart of drama and humor. I just try to present my ideas in a fun way. I’m attracted to art that’s dark and at the same time filtered through an exaggerated and aggressive sense of humor. If I had to create a name for my cartoony drawing style I’d call it ramshackle punk. You’ve written for SpongeBob Squarepants and Phineas and Ferb. Are there a lot of differences between the comic-book world and the animation world? Yes, it’s a completely different world. Television animation is a big business and collaboration between lots of different creative people. Comics for me are a solitary pursuit. I have no editors and one to tell me what to do. I do whatever I want and I publish it. After more than 20 years, how do you keep up the enthusiasm for drawing Underworld? It’s probably a form of insanity, because I willingly give myself anxiety every week. But halfway into the process something takes over and I become happily obsessed. I’m like a kid again, lost in play. This is my escape. This is my way of dealing with the world. This is how I surprise myself. This is what I always wanted to do: to draw a comic strip. When I was a child I wanted to live in a wacky, weird, funny, creepy comic strip. And now, for a few brief hours a week I get to live in Underworld.
Order “The Underworld: From Hoboken to Hollywood” the omnibus collection of the very best of the strip’s 23-year run, with annotations, photos, and other surprises from the author (along with a foreword by Mutts creator Patrick McDonnell).