The Arthur Jones Interview
A big part of the Comics Journal editor’s job was reading every comic that comes into the office. Everything. EVERY. THING. You would think that reading 10-15 pounds of monthly mainstream comic books would be the hardest slog, but it was easily the 20-30 pounds [I started weighing my weekend slush-pile reading two months into the job] of minicomics/zines that made me wish I had turned the job offer down one more time.
The former type of comic was at least made with a baseline level of competence, even when the results were boring or insulting. The latter were often soul-grindingly awful in an endless number of ways — as bad as the shittiest webcomic you’ve ever seen, but only if you saw it on a grungy old monitor with a post-it note challenging you, corporate drone of Fantagraphics, Inc., to experience the genius of its truly independent spirit — and this unique awfulness made it impossible to digest without additional discomfort. Like snowflakes, no two turds are the same. [I know we're supposed to be rah-rah-minicomics-are-the-best-hooray-for-infinite-but-valid-diversity-in-infinite-combinations, but there are more than a few good reasons why there are so many cliques at even the smallest small-press shows. You know the minis I'm talking about here.]
Anyway, the minis/zines were largely awful, so when one was actually good, it was great — and when one made me laugh, it was the best. This is how I discovered Arthur Jones, whose 2002 booklet 800LB GORILLA made me laugh the hardest of any mini can I recall reading at the Journal, a straightfaced mash of Chester Brown, the Justice League, ’80s pop culture and Fort Thunder. I’ve always wanted to know more about its creator, whose now-defunct Gorillasuit site regularly served up cool stuff in the early days of webcomics. Jones went on to draw and co-host the Post-it Note Diaries series of slideshow reading series in New York, which were collected and published by Plume in late 2011.
Mr. Jones and I had the following conversation via email on and off over 2012. I’d like to thank Arthur for sending much of the art for this piece, even while moving house from NYC to Los Angeles. — MG
Milo George: So, what drew a former Jefferson City Royal Ambassador all the way to the Rhode Island School of Design for college? Someone told me you came to RISD sight unseen?
Arthur Jones: Man, you dug deep. Yeah, RISD was a culture shock; I got in as a transfer student and didn’t visit the campus beforehand. I came to Providence from a town in Kansas of 3,000 people and felt pretty overwhelmed by the move. For example, I remember seeing graffiti for the first time and wondering what language the tags were in.
On my way to RISD I drove through NYC at like 2 A.M. and was freaking out from all the traffic, concrete and lights. I’d never been to the East coast or driven in a big city — it was all exciting but I was fucking terrified. I felt like I was cannonballing into the gates of Hell. I’d grown up sheltered and assumed that the world was full of evil and Biblical snares. As a footnote: I know how silly this sounds now, but this was all pre-Internet. If I was going to RISD today I would have had a Skype interview with a teacher and surfed the RISD website. My drive to college would have been GPS-guided, not following a map drawn on the back of my hand.
George: How long did the culture shock of being in a big city on the East coast last once you got to the campus?
Jones: It was gradual. There were a number of people I met along the way who were formative, but mostly it was just about getting older and living in more cosmopolitan places. I became an atheist in my mid 20s, the same time of life when people quit their first white-collar day job and go to grad school for something like, social work or library science. As you become an adult you stop caring so much what people think about you and determine what your own worldview is.
Honestly, a big part of it was meeting gay people. Before attending RISD, I was at a small Christian college in Kansas and I shared a dorm room with a painfully closeted gay guy. He’d pace around the room reading the Bible then theatrically collapse into his bed like Joan Crawford. At first I though he was crazy, then I came to understand he was just sensitive and confused kid. After watching him for a semester it dawned on me that I was similarly torturing myself. I wasn’t gay but I needed to get rid of all that dogma to find myself too.
Jones: I totally knew Fort Thunder as an entity; everyone did. I wasn’t part of their crowd — I found it a little intimidating — but I remember thinking that it must be one of the most unique underground scenes in the country. Then when Forcefield was in the [Whitney] Biennial, the legend of that loft space just seemed to blow up. For a few years, I felt like a million kids claimed to have gone there. In Providence, the Fort was viewed as cool but also hilarious — like the Island of Lost Boys in Peter Pan. There was a Fort Thunder uniform: New people would move in and immediately cut off all their pants at the shins and get a haircut that made them look like they had cranial skin cancer.
George: The Fort is our Woodstock; everyone claims to have been there, no matter how chronologically or geographically unlikely their claim. But, I imagine it would have been harder for you to make it through RISD without going there at least once.
Jones: I went to a handful of shows there and a pretty epic wrestling match. The first time I visited, I saw US Maple and was physically effected by their abrasiveness — they actually made me feel nauseous, but I sort of loved it. The thing I remember most was that the place was dissssssssgggggusting. I’m not squeamish and have lived in a number of semi-feral communal living situations, but Fort Thunder’s bathroom and kitchen were like a vegan diarrhea bomb blast zone. I knew Brian Gibson from Lightning Bolt and Brian Ralph; they were both in the RISD illustration department. Ralph made a comic called Fireball that I found really inspiring at the time. Brinkman, Ralph and Chippendale are all wonderful artists. There was a bunch of amazing bands that played in Providence during that period. I saw some of Lightning Bolt and Les Savy Fav’s first shows and I loved local bands like Thee Hydrogen Terrors and the legendary Six Finger Satellite. I left before the Dirt Palace/Hive Archive got rolling.
George: Could you talk a bit about how Fireball inspired you and your work?
Jones: Fireball was cool in a very teenage-boy way. It was all devils riding skateboards and kids beating up cops — keep in mind this was the early ’90s; that iconography wasn’t quite as played-out as it is now. I’d never really be exposed to minicomics before, and after that I started seeking them out.
The RISD illustration department was horrible; it taught us how to send postcards to art directors every four months and buy $3000 spreads in Illustration annuals. Very little of it was inspirational. Brian was one of those guys who was on his own path and I appreciated that. His drawings were also super great.
Jones: The tiny comic shop in Jefferson City had a water-damaged box of “weird stuff” in the back under a table. Most of it was in terrible condition or used, but somewhere in there I found some Yummy Furs. “Ed the Happy Clown” was my absolute favorite. It was a nice bridge comic between the ’80s comics I loved as a kid — Usagi Yojimbo, Groo the Wanderer, Bloom County, Far Side, etc. — and the world of “underground” comics like RAW or Weirdo. Later, by association, his work turned me onto Canadians like Seth, Joe Matt and Marc Bell. The Playboy and I Never Liked You are so much better than all these emo, break-up comics that keep coming out.
George: Oh yeah. So, right-wing culture has changed radically in the last 20 years that I can’t imagine what a conservative teenage comics fan would make of things like Ed’s Reagan-headed dick anymore. Could you talk a bit about what appealed to you about Yummy Fur at the time? And did your parents know about these comics?
Jones: Right-wing culture has changed over the last 20 years and I feel like I observed the epicenter of that change as a kid. I grew up in Jefferson City, which is Missouri’s state capital; it’s a small town and a lot of kids’ parents were in state politics. I knew John Ashcroft’s and Roy Blunt’s kids. I saw Ashcroft sing before the nation got that same pleasure in Fahrenheit 911. I was blown away when that brand of Missouri religious conservative politics seemed to rule the nation during the GWB years. It was terrifying. I also witnessed the radicalization of the Evangelical church. I grew up very Southern Baptist and in the ’70s and early ’80s the Southern Baptists were actually very nice and culturally well-behaved. Jimmy Carter was America’s first popular Southern Baptist — I think he is a good example of where the church was back then.
Then the ’80s hit and the born-agains decided they need to galvanize. Mega-churches started happening. Right-wing talk radio started. Pentecostalism became less marginalized and people started talking about how there needed to be “Bible believing” Christians in government so the U.S. could become a theocracy. “Bible-believing” is the evangelical code word for being totally fucking nuts for Jesus. It means you believe every word of the Bible is completely 100% true. It creates zealotry — and people like Karl Rove know how to manipulate the blind zealots perfectly … anyway … sorry I went off on a tangent.
Yummy Fur was both smart and stupid at the same time, which is sort of everything I love. My folks knew I collected comics and perhaps had mixed feelings about that but I doubt they could tell the difference between a Spider-man comic, a Bloom County anthology and an issue of Yummy Fur. It was all kids stuff to them. Showing a comic to a parent is like making a dog watch television.
George: Your old site gorillasuit.com now leads to what appears to be a legit Gorilla Suit-selling business. Do you have any plans to collect your early comics, like 900lb GORILLA, or fold them into your primary website?
Jones: Yeah, that’s funny. Someone bought Gorillasuit.com from me and now actually sells gorilla suits on it. When the site was mine, I kept getting these emails offering to buy it from what I assumed was a spam bot; I ignored them, but the offer kept going up and up. Unbeknownst to me, I was playing hardball. Eventually the offer got big enough that I felt obliged to investigate it. At that point, the site was largely dormant and I felt okay with selling it and moving on. I paid four or five month’s rent from the sale.
I don’t have plans to anthologize any of the webcomics I did. Milo, you might be the only person who remembers that stuff. I’m flattered that it would even occur to you. I’m so disorganized I’m not sure where much of it is. I have some zip discs in my closet that the comics might be on. I really want to get back to doing comics and hope to do a graphic novel in the future. Hit me back in five to 10 years.
George: I don’t remember if it came in from one of the Journal‘s columnists or the review-copy mail, but I can still recall pictures and lines from 900LB GORILLA that made me laugh — the turd-looking monster holding up a boombox, Lloyd Dobler-style, yelling “KICK OUT THE JAMS MOTHER FUCKER” and “Superman is using his super speed to DEVASTATE this nursing home.” — but I never found out anything about its creation. I recall it having the energy of a 24-hour comic, and the book’s shape made me wonder if the comic had been made with the Web in mind. What inspired it?
Jones: Yeah, 900LB GORILLA was very silly. It wasn’t made in 24 hours but, as I remember, I drew it and printed it in about 3 weeks. It certainly has the spirit of a 24 hour comic. Very little of it was pre-meditated. In one of the storylines a poorly drawn Superman gets infected with some weird kryptonite, that makes him punch people who are in their 80s whenever he hears a song from the ’80s. The villain — who is a dirt bike riding anthropomorphic shit nugget — plays “Jessie’s Girl” or some Duran Duran song on a boom box and Superman, against his will, beats up a nursing home. I’m sure you are the only person to remember that. I just googled “900 lb Gorilla” and “Arthur Jones” and got TWO hits. Counting those two people and you, that’s three who perhaps remember that zine.
For you and those two fans, the backstory to the comic was this: My friend Paul Koob does a funny little minicomic called Hamster Man; he’s been doing it since he was 10. Yes, 10. In 2002, he rented a table at the Chicago Wizard World convention and asked me to join him. I accepted his invite but had nothing to sell, so I made 900LB GORILLA as quickly as I could. My only goal was to get to 32 pages, just like a real comic … not one of those eight-page doodle-zines. At the time I freelanced at a marketing company and would sneak in late at night to print things.
I remember that our Comic Con merch table being sandwiched in between Lou Ferrigno’s table and this make-shift wrestling ring where these high-school kids did WWF-style routines. Watching Lou watch these kids was my favorite part of the weekend. He looked so annoyed — you could just see the wheels turning in his head: “How has it come to this ….”
George: It’s been a little while since Post-it Note Diaries was published; can you see the book objectively — in particular, how it and its individual pieces might have been shaped by the Reading Series?
Jones: Hmmmm. I think I can talk about it objectively. The whole thing has a unconventional trajectory and I assume few of your readers have prior knowledge of the book or the Reading Series. So I have to track backwards a bit to answer.
This whole thing started with gorillasuit.com, actually. I used to make doodles at work on Post-it notes and put them on my website. It was easily the most popular thing I did on there, because it was relatable. People looked at the site while loafing at work and I was making drawings while loafing at work.
I started making little narratives from the drawings and reading them at galleries and bars as slideshows. Those slideshows turned into the Post-it Note Reading Series, which I co-hosted with my friend Starlee Kine who is a great writer and radio personality. Each show would feature four or five authors and I’d illustrate their stories on hundreds of post-its that we’d project on stage. It was half a reading, half a multimedia comedy event. The book Post-it Note Diaries is an anthology of my favorite stories from the live events and some new stories I convinced some of my favorite authors to contribute. The whole thing is the result of a series of happy accidents over about five or six years.
I loved making the book. I got to work with some amazingly talented people and I was paid to draw full time for a few months. Totally awesome. Now for the objective part: I think the project is confusing for many people. For comics fans, the Post-it notes themselves are often perceived as a gimmick. A square yellow, office product isn’t a satisfying as a drawn square. It seems less artful. And to that point, I have been frustrated that most of the press surrounding the book has been about Post-it notes being “quirky” or “fun” — not about the quality or the content of the drawings and writing. Which I think are great.
Jones: Yeah, we wrote a script for an animated sitcom. Cable networks tend to develop content more year-round but I’m sure Comedy Central would have loved to have a Fall hit. Honestly, we went into the project wanting to keep some of the boundaries in mind, wanting to produce a really solid script that was funny, complex and structurally sound. We also wanted to produce it on time, so we’d have the best shot at consideration. Comedy Central isn’t Adult Swim and we purposefully didn’t want a psychedelic tone like Tim and Eric or Aquateen. We ended up reading more 30 Rock and Arrested Development scripts than anything else for inspiration; those shows ping pong around so much that they read like cartoons on the page.
Karl and I just wrapped up writing our pilot. They passed on it so I can speak about it a little. The writing process was really great. We were paired with John Lee, who is part of the PFFR art and TV collective. He was like our Tommy Lasorda and Karl and I were like the 1983 Dodgers — meaning we made some hustle plays, over-achieved and wrote a pretty funny script that wasn’t quite good enough to beat the Orioles in the World Series. Before that, I did some presentation shorts for FOX. TV is a emotionally irrational, crazymaking racket. You just have to cross your fingers and hope the exact right person sees your thing at the exact time they need that thing at the exact moment in the year when they have money to buy that thing, then you have to hope that person stays at the network long enough to champion your thing through its development. It’s like throwing a javelin through the hole of a rolling doughnut. At Comedy Central, we got caught up in the middle of a network shake-up and I’m not sure our script ever got a chance. It made me hungry to do some DIY projects again.
George: Anything you can share with us at this point?
Jones: I’m still woodshedding. I’m designing some posters and doing some animated PSAs for a place named the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley. I’d like to write more and make some non-animated short films. I’d still love to do some comics. Maybe this interview will inspire me to dust off the ole Rapidograph.
For more work and info about Arthur Jones, please visit www.byarthurjones.com.