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Carbon 14 – Interview

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 …

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UNDERWORLD FROM HOBOKEN TO HOLLYWOOD OMNIBUS

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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).

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