Say what you will about the “nihilism” that abounds in cartoonist Kaz’s strip Underworld, but don’t say it doesn’t make you laugh. The twisted inner-city universe of Underworld, whose bizarre streets are populated by characters steeped in cynicism and looking like Looney Tunes gone horribly wrong, appears in newspapers nationwide. It features such endearing personalities as Smoking Cat, who walks like a human and smokes like the Marlboro man; Snuff, the (anti-)Popeye; and Nuzzle, who’s always got a syringe of something stuck in his shoulder (and will soon be gracing a Smoke King lighter). The strip has also been collected into two volumes, the latest of which, Barebulbs: Underworld 2, has recently been published by Fantagraphics. He’s also done two other books, Buzzbomb and Sidetrack City, which feature everything from strips to one and two-page comics to long, narrative stories. “Sidetrack City,” the story, is nearly 30 pages of eyeball-popping mayhem that conjures up images of rejected sets and aliens from Lost In Space merged with what Burroughs’ Interzone might look like on really evil acid. Kaz’s work is filled with black humor of the highest quality and imagery that’s funny and disturbing. It’s disarmingly linear and surreal at the same time, making you go back and read parts of it twice to make sure you’ve gleaned all that’s happening in each highly detailed panel.–Larry
C14: Are you basically a life-long New Yorker, or as close to that as one can be?
Kaz: I guess I’m as close to one as one can be. Hoboken is across the river. Although I’ve only been living in New York proper for about five years.
C14: Are you actually a trained artist?
Kaz: Well, I’m not sure what that means. I did take courses at School of Visual Arts, illustration courses and whatnot, and I was pathetic at them. I guess the thing I concentrated on was learning enough rudiments of drawing certain things so that I could just sit and not have to look at something and draw it. That’s why I became a cartoonist, because it’s easier for me just to play with my imagination. I’ve also tried going out onto the street and sketch things, but that whole thing just makes me nervous. People are coming to you going [in a nerdy voice], ‘Hey, are you an artist?’ Get away! Sometimes I’ll snap pictures with a Polaroid, if I need a lamppost or something.
C14: When did you start getting published?
Kaz: I actually started while I was still at SVA, I think it was my second year. I realized the only way for me to learn is to actually just do it as I go. So I approached the New York Rocker and I did a comic strip for them, it was like a half-pager. It was a really silly thing, it was these bug characters that were a rock band, they were very simply drawn. After a while they dropped it, and I decided I was going to approach them with the things I was doing in class. My instructor was Art Speigelman [Maus] and he encouraged us to do really sort of experimental and arty work, and I had this vague sort of idea of combining my interest in the fine arts (a lot of painters I like) and comics. Sort of concentrating on the construction of the page, sort of like Krazy Kat. So I approached them with these full pages and they flipped for them, and I think they ran about eight or nine of them before the paper folded.
C14: It’s funny you mention Krazy Kat because in looking at your stuff, the things it reminds me of are parts of Krazy Kat and really early Popeye.
Kaz: Yeah, exactly.
C14: And a little Kim Dietch too.
Kaz: Yeah. Not consciously, although I do look at his work from time to time, and of course I collected all those underground comics when I was a teenager. But I draw a lot of my inspiration from turn-of-the-century comics; there’s something about the feeling when an art form first originates, there’s all these weird possibilities. ‘Cause there were all these cartoonists working at the time doing things like The Yellow Kid, Happy Hooligan, the old Mutt n Jeff, Katzenjammer Kids; there’s something about that scratchy, big-nosed style of characters living in screwed up apartments and scheming to survive, that looks appealing to me right away. And I can draw it! I can’t draw everything, but I found I had a good hand for doing that kind of work.
C14: Do you prefer doing the four-panel strip type stuff or the longer narrative features?
Kaz: Well, they’re two different animals. If I could survive doing the longer stories I would do them, but there is so little money to be gotten. Even if you’re contributing to a Fantagraphics book, you get a page rate of like $50 per page, and my work got so complicated in the thinking designing and writing, that it would take me like three weeks to do just one page. I mean I remember working on some of the pages in Buzzbomb for a whole month before they were done. It wasn’t a very good way to work because when you’re working on a long story it makes you feel like it’s getting away from you and you never finish it. I was concentrating on getting my chops down–obviously I work a lot faster now. But the four-panel thing was sort of a life raft for me, because I decided I wasn’t going to do comics at one point since there wasn’t any money in it. And then the art director for the (New York) Press asked me if I would pitch a comic strip idea and I said, ‘I can do four panels a week, that’s easy enough’; and then the other problem is tearing your hair out wondering, ‘What am I gonna do this week?!’ And it sorta took off, and I felt I got really good at it and I got really good response to it, so now I like both forms. Although if you look at Buzzbomb you’ll notice that there are some longer stories in there and there’s one page where I have this character in a one row gag comic. I was always playing with that form, even when I was a kid. But I sorta like them both. I mean I like a book, obviously, it’s a personal thing, you can take it to bed with you and read it. I also love the idea about being in these newspapers and people picking it up, reading it on the subway and just throwing it away; there’s something vital about it being out every week.
C14: How many papers are you in?
Kaz: I believe it’s six papers altogether, one sort of runs it sporadically, and there’s an online service that runs the comic every week.
C14: In Barebulbs there are some characters that are recurring, like Newton and Nuzzle; is a lot of that stuff drawn on or inspired by living in New York?
Kaz: Well, yeah. Obviously, since it’s an urban strip the themes are definitely urban. But even when I was living in Hoboken, that’s like a little city. It comes out of that experience and also the things I like in other media, like television-there’s a sort of low-rent, “Honeymooners” feel to it-and the kinds of movies I enjoy, that really affected me; like Eraserhead, which was very industrial. Max Fleisher cartoons.
C14: So you do comics full-time, you don’t have another day gig or anything like that?
Kaz: Well from time to time I do illustration work but lately I’ve been doing mostly comics. I also do a comic strip that runs from time to time, whenever I get around to doing it, in Nickelodeon’s kids magazine.
Kaz: Yeah, it’s a two-page series that’s been running for a while now. It’s a how-to-draw series for kids. So I teach the little buggers how to draw cartoons, how to come up with characters, and so on and so forth.
C14: So you have to tone it way down, right?
Kaz: Oh yes. Dramatically. If you saw them, you’d be like, ‘whoa!’ There’s sort of an inkling of my sensibilities in it. There’s a lot of jokes that I would love to do, that the editors go, ‘oh no, this is going over the kids’ heads.’ Initially they told me, ‘look the age group we’re going for does not understand irony.’ So there goes a lot of what I do! [laughing]
C14: That must be tough.
Kaz: Well, it was tough until I remember when they first gave me the gig I was thinking, ‘man, how am I gonna do this?’ So I went out and bought a whole bunch of Hardy comics, and I read ’em and thought, ‘well, the whole idea is to make it as simple as possible.’ So now it’s easy, it’s just a process of eliminating things, just making it easier and simpler. It’s not challenging, it’s just to make money. But the funny thing about it is eventually there will be enough of these strips, when I’m done, that I’ll collect them into a book-it would be funny if I had an effect on some kid!
C14: Are you working on any long narrative pieces right now, or are you just sticking with strips?
Kaz: Right now, I’m just sticking with strips. When you can draw comics you get offers for all kinds of different things.
C14: Such as?
Kaz: Well, right now I’m taking baby steps to translate Underworld into an animated cartoon.
C14: Yowza. For whom?
Kaz: Well it’s not really for anybody yet. There’s an animation company in New Zealand that I’m friends with, and they mostly do television commercials but they’re itching to have their own project they can pitch. So I did storyboards, wrote a script, recorded some voices; there’s all this preproduction to do before you can actually have a cartoon. My guess is what they’re going to try and do is a five-minute pilot cartoon, and then they’re going to show that to try and pitch it to raise money to move it further.
C14: Is this with new characters or familiar ones?
Kaz: Actually, what we decided to do was, since it could be nothing will happen with this, I took some comics-literally, some comics from Underworld-and I just translated them into animation. So it’s sort of almost like Pulp Fiction; it goes from one scene to one scene, and they’re sort of vaguely strung together. I mean I’ve written things, I’ve pitched things like a children’s show to Nickelodeon because people have asked me, but nothing’s ever come of it. My sensibility’s too weird for kids TV. So this is definitely gonna be an adult cartoon.
C14: Well there’s a grudgingly expanding market for that, with stuff like “King Of The Hill” on TV now.
Kaz: Yeah, that’s a really funny cartoon. I think there’s still this feeling out there that cartoons are meant for children, but I think there’s also a whole generation that never gave up on them. Whenever there’s an animation festival in New York, it’s always packed and sold out. There’s no reason to give it up.
C14: When you get your strips into papers is that done through a syndicated network or do you do that yourself?
Kaz: I do that myself, it’s really simple. I draw the strips, and every month I collect four of them, Xerox them, put them in a package and send them out to the papers. So it’s all me at this point. Although if it gets bigger it’s gonna get more complex. Even nowadays I think, ‘oh, I wish I had a secretary coming in once a week.’ But it’s not that complicated. Yet. I’ve been approached by two guys that syndicate to alternative papers and they claim they can get me into a lot more papers and so on, but they get 50%; some of the papers pay so little that 50% isn’t worth it, I might as well do it myself.
C14: Are you already starting to think about Underworld 3 in the back of your mind?
Kaz: Um, yeah, to a certain extent. To the point where in my sketchbooks I’m sketching ideas for covers. But it’s gonna take me about another year until I’ve collected enough for another book.
C14: How long have you been doing Underworld?
Kaz: I believe it started in late ’91.
C14: Do you have any favorite characters?
Kaz: Well certain characters are more versatile than others, like Nuzzle. For some reason he seems to be really versatile, I can do a lot of things with him.
C14: You also have Little Nuzzle, too.
Kaz: Yeah, well I’ve done two with Little Nuzzle, I have yet to come up with another idea for Little Nuzzle [laughing]. He’s just a goof on the Muppet Babies and cartoons like that. I tend to sit down with my sketchbook and draw out the panels, and I take one character and draw him in a situation–the street or in a house or something–and I just let my imagination go, and the character itself sort of suggests what the narrative or the gag is going to be. Lots of times I love doing these one-off characters, just creating a character specifically for one joke. And sometimes I like the character so much they continue. Like the Pinky Pig/Drafty Duck parody. I thought I would just do that once, but I came up with so many more gags for it. It’s really funny coming up with these one-note characters; like Sleepy Hitler, whose whole existence is that his last name is Hitler.
C14: Is there some sort of origin for Petit Mort?
Kaz: That’s sort of my take on cuteness; it’s sort of inspired by Tweety Bird. The whole thing about having this cast of characters is that I grew up being really influenced by Robert Crumb; and I noticed he had a cast of characters, which was wonderful-’cause some cartoonists create a handful of characters and use them over and over again-he was able to go in all kinds of different directions because of it. So that’s what I set out to do initially.
C14: Aside from having to tone things down for Nickelodeon, have you ever had any editors turn you down or want you to change content?
Kaz: Nobody’s said anything about changing content for things I’ve already done. When I’ve approached newspapers and pitched things to them I’ve gotten a lot of response that editors felt my work was too extreme, and dealt with subject like drugs and whatnot that advertisers would not like. I think their only fear is in losing advertisers.
C14: Besides Philly, in what papers or cities does your stuff appear?
Kaz: Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Washington DC, hopefully San Francisco soon.
C14: The Weekly or the Guardian?
Kaz: the Guardian. I think they ran one of my Smoking Cat strips and they’re sort of going back and forth on it. [in a quasi-conspiratorial voice] ‘Should we run this stuff or not?’ They’re afraid.
C14: That’s surprising considering how politically loose San Francisco is.
Kaz: It’s also very politically correct. And I’ve done jokes, not mean jokes, but jokes with gay characters and whatnot; characters doing things that, I guess, they don’t want. It’s one thing to write an article about a certain subject, it’s another to advocate it in a comic strip. Although the whole strip is ‘don’t try this at home, kids.’ It’s just for laughs, sort of the John Waters approach.
C14: Sort of like trying to stretch the limits, but only for humor’s sake.
Kaz: Yeah. Sort of like the strip itself being my little laboratory about not having to worry about any kind of morals. A lot of art functions like that, it’s sort of cathartic to watch people do weird things. Look at the success of Trainspotting, it’s sort of cathartic to watch people like that, shooting up and having a good time; but there’s also a dark side to it. I can’t stay away from the dark side. Actually that’s probably one of the biggest complaints that I get, if I do get a complaint, is that the strip is too nihilistic and too dark. But that’s how it comes out when I sit down and draw.
C14: But it’s funny!
Kaz: That’s the whole point, it’s funny but it’s bittersweet.
This interview originally appeared in Carbon 14 #11.