Monday, July 21, 2014

Rob Kirby Interviews Kevin Czapiewski


Rob Kirby Interviews Kevin Czapiewski



Back in the day, when I drew a biweekly comic strip that I self-syndicated for gay and alternative newspapers (remember those?), I would occasionally receive letters from aspiring young cartoonists. They would ask first and foremost How Do I Get Started? followed by Do You Have Any Advice For Me As a Beginner? The first advice I would always impart was simply this: Do It Because You Love It - with the underlying message being Don’t Expect To Strike It Rich. Some appreciated my words of caution/wisdom, while others - the ones that wanted/expected to strike it rich - did not.

Twenty nine year-old, 6'4 Kevin Czapiewski (pronounced “Chappy-esky”), a talented artist and self-described “Comics Mom,” is one of those creators who is clearly in the game out of love: love for process of creating art, love for the network of friends, colleagues and collaborators that inevitably and thrillingly spring forth from that creation, love for the medium itself. From his home base of Cleveland, Ohio, he has built up an impressive resume of art comics and fantasy comics, and with some of those aforementioned friends and colleagues birthed the PUPPYTEETH anthology, of which the fourth issue has recently been released. His output is so varied I wanted to talk to him to get all those disparate art-threads into an orderly shape in my head. Kevin, or Czap (pronounce it “Chap” or, if you’re weird like me, enjoy reading it sometimes as “Cee-Zap”) was gracious enough to email-answer my questions over several busy weeks from late June to early July, the results of which are transcribed below.

Rob Kirby: Every cartoonist has an “Origins of” story. Can you tell us yours?

Kevin Czapiewski: I’m originally from Northern Virginia, just across the river from DC, nuclear family including an older brother (2 years). Cartooning was always a pretty naturalized obsession for both my brother and I, with drawing being an obvious extension. My brother Matt, for most of my teenage years, was the trailblazer, introducing me to most of what I still find valuable, especially punk and zines (DIY) in high school. Other good examples of this are when I contributed strips to his high school zine and did guest strips for his webcomic in the early 2000s.
I decided to go to art school in Cleveland, literally because the school mailed me a cool brochure. During my second year (basically an extended freshman year for a 5 year program), I had a painting elective that introduced my small class to really exciting contemporary art - so for the next couple of years I made room-sized art pieces and minimal sculptures. The Painting department at the time was as media-unspecific as you could get, and emphasized critical thinking and practice over most everything else, so that’s the major I chose.
Almost immediately after graduating, I got myself into a terrible, terrible marriage that taught me a whole lot of things by the time I got out of it - the love of dogs, how to love and respect yourself, how to fit into small spaces, how to drive a car, near-undying patience, how to not make excuses and actually DO something if you want it done and, ultimately, if I wanted to make comics I couldn’t waste any more time. (Also of note - we had our honeymoon at San Diego Comic Con [thanks Aunt Ann!], my first convention, and being totally immersed in comics like that was like an awakening.)
By the end of summer 2010, the marriage was over and I was living on my own, feeling better than I have in maybe my entire life. I had a full time job; but/so I threw myself into comics pretty earnestly right away and I’ve barely slowed down much since. And now I’m here - fresh as a lily.

Kirby: Can you tell me any specific comics and/or creators that you found particularly influential? Do you see yourself as being part of any particular school of alt-comics? What is your niche, if you indeed have one?

Czap: I was big into Uncanny X-Men during my teen years, mostly because of Joe Madureira and then Chris Bachalo, who I copied a lot while learning to draw. Bill Watterson - not just his drawing, but also the essays included in the Calvin & Hobbes 10th Anniversary book that introduced me to concepts like a comic strip and its author having integrity, the whole concept of panel layout, etc. Discovering Chris Ware in college was a big deal but Kevin Huizenga’s “The Sunset” from Gloriana was a game-changer for me. Driven By Lemons by Josh Cotter was also big. From Hell.

More recently, I learn the most from contemporaries like Eleanor Davis, Jeremy Sorese, Sophia Foster-Dimino, Inės Estrada, Patrick Kyle, Sophie Yanow (the list goes on forever)... I’ve also been really influenced by Francophone artists for some reason – Vincent Giard especially, Julie Delporte, Julie Doucet, to a slightly lesser extent European cartoonists like Christophe Blain, Blutch, and Manuele Fior.

Of course I’m influenced by a lot outside of comics too, particularly music. Musicians and songwriters like Joanna Newsom, Joni Mitchell, Fela Kuti, Meredith Graves and Catherine Irwin are huge for me - not just in what they write but how they use the timing and quality of their singing to convey meaning - something I’m always trying to capture in comics.



I’m particularly bad at identifying any school I may or may not be a part of – I don’t have a good sense of what my work looks like “in the wild.” Beyond that, maybe my interests are so all over the place that I don’t have a single definable style. Maybe I do though? That said, I feel an affinity to the circle of people making comics as poetry. Warren Craghead, Derik Badman, Jason Overby, Aidan Koch, Oliver East, Simon Moreton, and on. I can’t presume to say I’m a part of that group, but that’s where my sympathies lie. I think I straddle a lot of lines. My closest peers are people like L Nichols, Cathy G Johnson, Darryl Ayo, Kat Verhoeven, Jessi Zabarsky, Georgia Webber, Liz Suburbia, and my brother Matt - all of whom I’m largely influenced by as well.



Kirby: A well-known cartoonist once remarked that she always most appreciates comics by people who are artists first and cartoonists second.  If you had to describe yourself as an artist first or cartoonist first, which would you instinctively choose and why? 

Czap: This reminds me of the BCGF when Scott Longo (who edits the Sonatina anthology) went around asking people whether they called themselves artists or cartoonists. I ultimately said “cartoonist,” but it’s a trickier question than it seems. I don’t see the two as opposing or even separate designations - “cartoonist” is really just a subcategory of “artist” (all cartoonists are artists, but not all artists are cartoonists). I could say I’m a cartoonist because I actively use the style and language of cartooning most of the time (though not always). I don’t believe there’s anything that inherently ties cartooning to comics outside of its particular history. My ideal answer would be a third option - “comics artist” - but so far that hasn’t been widely adopted. [Sidenote: as I was answering this question, a conversation started on twitter about what we call ourselves - the verdict seems to be that “artist” is still too pretentious.]
“Artist” is really just a neutral job that doesn’t say anything about the quality of the work. There do, however, seem to be qualities shared by artists of any medium that make the work stronger/better/more interesting - such as integrity to the work (with a lack of preciousness) and exploring culture/history with a critical toolset. Those are the qualities I'm after, anyway.

Kirby: I wish I’d seen that conversation! I personally call myself either a cartoonist or creator and I’m happy with that designation, but the push pull of that conversation always fascinates me. Anyway, I wanted to ask you about art and community, as you strike me as a creator for whom community building is particularly important. I’m thinking specifically about the PUPPYTEETH anthology. Can you tell us about that? 

Czap: Ha, yeah I mean, when it comes down to it, I don’t really care what I get called. It’s interesting to think about, but in practice I’d rather worry about something else. Anyway.

You’re right; community is a really big thing for me. It’s a huge, passionate subject, not easy to find a way into a response. PUPPYTEETH… When I graduated college I seemed to be the only one who stayed in town - everyone I knew had moved away and I didn’t have a support group in place. It was really lonely while at the same time my enthusiasm and ambition for making comics felt like it was burning me up. I was doing anything I could to actively engage in Comics, but it felt like square one.

Luckily I had reconnected with my high school friend Liz Suburbia, who was posting amazing comics on Livejournal. I floated the idea of doing a group anthology together. Liz came up with the name. We got all the cartoonists we knew (mostly people I had met at college) to be in the first PUPPYTEETH, which we took to give away at SPX. Doing an anthology at such an early stage of your career is kind of like going on a long trip - it’s generally more efficient to carpool with a bunch of friends rather than drive alone. Assuming you’re all chipping in for gas, it’s cheaper for everyone involved, the trip will probably be more fun since they’re people you like, and the best part - you all get to the destination together!

It’s open to change as we all move forward, but PUPPYTEETH to this point has generally been at least partially an excuse to get more work out of these great people I know, who might not otherwise put a lot of work out. With the slight exception of the newest issue, number four, it’s been the same core group, expanding as I meet more people who seem to fit with the whole idea. I’m not sure there’s really much unique about the backstory or the concept as far as anthologies go, but for me it’s always been about the specific people. There’s no theme or anything, it’s just a community I believe in and love doing their best work at a given moment.




Kirby: I take it then that PUPPYTEETH is strictly curated? (BTW, I love your carpool/anthology analogy – so true!) How much of an editorial hand do you have in the specific content? Do you have folks submit ideas or do you take more of a carte blanche approach? 

Czap: That’s right; it’s always been curated. Not much of an editorial hand at all, really. It’s all carte blanche - what I say each time to the contributors is basically “I asked you to do this because I love your work and I believe in you.” I ask them to believe in themselves too and to do work that they’re really proud of.  I make myself available to help in any capacity the artist may want, either offering support or talking through the process if they’re having some trouble, but more often than not my editorial hand is in putting the book together.
 
Of course, the editor role is something that I’m still learning to do as I go along, so each installment has been a chance to improve. With this most recent issue, a lot more thought went into whom specifically to invite, how those different approaches would work together, etc. Since I’m interested in so many different kinds of comics, that gets reflected in what kind of work gets included in PUPPYTEETH.

Kirby: I really identify with that editing approach, that’s how I operate myself. So, will you tell us a little bit about the stories in the new issue? 

Czap:  Sure - The book starts out with a piece from Jenn Lisa, an artist I met at our local Genghis Con over a year ago. Her comic in PUPPYTEETH is drawn on post-it notes, a grid of 4 to a page, in marker and ballpoint pen. It’s a kind of surreal comic, where this unwanted baby is suddenly thrust into the life of a young woman on a picnic. The storytelling is very minimal, which I like, and I think the drawings are just gorgeous, some great imagery.

Jess Wheelock and Jon Gott are both close friends from college, two of the most brilliant people I know. Jess contributed amazing comics to the first two issues of PUPPYTEETH, but wasn’t able to be in the third one. This comic is just as touching and fantastically executed. It’s a story about a young woman who works at Applebee’s, where her only real companion is a piece of restaurant decor (a talking carousel horse). They share a pact to escape the restaurant and lead the lives they’ve always dreamed of - except real life is usually more complicated.

Jon is coming from outside of comics, so I was really interested in how he came to this project. The piece is the result of visiting and researching a number of bridges around Cleveland, remnants of which show up as photographs collaged together with research documents. We only see fragments and scraps of this information, but put together and in the context of the other comics in the issue, we get the sense of a larger history.

Paula Almeida is a Portuguese artist who’s been going to school in Brazil - I discovered her work on Tumblr and been a big fan for a while. Her story is pretty fast-paced - it’s a futuristic Sci-Fi take on colonial conquest, mostly told from the vantage point of this immature, selfish princess who seems to be in love with her brother. Things get trippy when there’s an assassination attempt…

And then Laura Knetzger. Laura’s this great source of energy and strength in the comics realm. Here she’s got another of her customarily moving comics - she starts off by fantasizing about society collapsing and getting the chance to start over. She follows this daydream through its presumed logical implications, like needing to build shelter, grow food on her own, raise the children of passing travelers, eventually forget how to draw, etc.

Kirby: Can you tell us what comics or other artwork you're working on currently?

Czap: I’ve got a couple different things going. I draw a webcomic called Project: Ballad. It’s about a group of video game fans who find themselves transported to what is possibly the fictional world of their favorite video game series, and their friends still in our world trying to bring them back. We’re into Chapter Two of the thing and at the time of writing this just passed the 120-page mark, with many more to come.

I’ve also been working on a series of comics that I’m going to collect in a new book sometime next year, called Fütchi Perf. The uniting thread will be they all take place in a future utopian version of Cleveland, OH. I’m pretty excited to get this finished and out there - it’s been a couple of years since my last collection Birthday Surprise, and I’m approaching this as being more of a cohesive album. All the mini comics I’ve made in the past year or two are from this project.



Kirby: Totally random stupid question time! Kevin Czapiewski, what is your favorite ridiculously bad pop song?

Czap: The first song I thought of was “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone,” by Paula Cole. I loved it as a kid, but to be honest I haven’t listened to it in years. Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night,” however, is still in the regular rotation.

Kirby: Tell us the expos and small press comics shows where you’ll be tabling in the second half of 2014?

Czap: I’m especially excited to be tabling at the first ever RIPE in Providence, RI this August. Really impressed with the crew putting that together (full disclosure - my partner is an organizer). I am also extremely touched and lucky to have been invited back to SPX this year. I applied to CAB, but I’ve never gotten into that show, so we’ll see. Either way, I plan on being there to hang out in some capacity. And then of course right after Thanksgiving here in Cleveland we’ll be having our 6th annual Genghis Con, which I help organize. Looking forward to building on last year’s successful show. And that’s it until next year!

Kirby: Last one! Please tell us anything else we need to know, including your contact info.

Czap: I feel like I covered everything! There’s always a myriad of places to see the things I’m involved in - my portfolio website is kevinczap.com, my online store is czapbooks.bigcartel.com (where you can buy my own work as well as PUPPYTEETH and comics by Liz Suburbia, Jessi Zabarsky, Liz Valasco, Dale O’Flaherty and more). The webcomic is at projectballad.com. I use twitter a lot, @kevinczap, my tumblr’s at kevinczap.tumblr.com. For Genghis Con stuff, I run the social media stuff, so follow our tumblr (genghisconcleveland.tumblr.com, twitter @thegenghiscon, and Facebook (facebook.com/genghisconcleveland, the GC website is thegenghiscon.com. I think there’s more, but this should be more than enough for anybody.

Kirby: Thanks once more to Czap for the interview! Until next month's interview, stay well and read lots of comics and make some too.


Images, top to bottom: 1. Mr. Czap himself; 2. a panel from Fütchi Perf; 3. excerpt from A Lesson in Survival; 4. Excerpt from He Fought Like a Little Tiger in a Trap by Kevin Czapiewski and Cathy G Johnson; 5. Cover of issue #4 of PUPPYTEETH; 6. Page from an untitled story in PUPPYTEETH #4 by Jess Wheelock; All images © by Kevin Czap unless otherwise noted. 7. Excerpt from Project: Ballad. Project: Ballad is Michael Peterson/Kevin Czapiewski, licensed under Creative Commons 

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