‘You’ve got to figure out a way to not throw that chair across the room’ – An Interview with Zak Sally, author of Like a Dog

Zak Sally is a comic artist and the former bassist for Minnesota slowcore band Low. His own work has been nominated for Eisner and Ignatz awards, and he has provided a launchpad for other artists through his La Mano 21 stable. With his latest book Like A Dog, Fantagraphics have compiled the first two issues of his Recidivist series with a selection of additional strips. It’s strange and unsettling, but overall compelling, and you’re advised to check it out.

 

Will Fitzpatrick (WF): First off, i’d like to say how impressed I was with Like A Dog. One thing that struck me is that the large majority of the strips span a period during which you were still playing bass for Low. As you point out in the notes towards the rear of the book, comics became less of a priority for you out of circumstance back then, so what made you decide to place comics ahead of music in recent years?

Zak Sally (ZS): First of all, thanks: it always makes me happy when someone says they enjoyed the book.

As far as the music/ comics question; I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but also don’t want to mince words – the end of my time in Low was really difficult, in a lot of ways: by the time my leaving became a real thing, I was done with ALL of it, for a while. Not just touring/being in a band, but making music, the whole thing. And given that, it also seemed like the time for me to really try to hit cartooning as hard as I could, considering that comics was always “what I wanted to do with my life” in the first place, and music was… this thing I got involved in because I loved it, but never had any ideas or dreams about doing it “professionally”, or as a way to make a living: that idea seemed even STUPIDER than trying to make a living off comics, if you can believe that. I went to shows and played in bands because, well, why WOULDN’T you? I really just fell into Low because of my friendship with Alan and Mimi and because I loved the music the band was making – and that’s pretty much where I’m at with music these days as well, just playing/making music for the love of it.

That’s a long way of saying: comics really have always been my priority, it’s just been a matter of how well I can navigate the other stuff (band/ job /neuroses back then, job/ family/ less intense neuroses now…). It comes and goes.

WF: Your comics involve a lot of heavily-inked surreal images, coupled with text which is much more straightforward and probing. This is quite at odds with the sparse, lyrically-cryptic music that Low made, and yet the two seem to generate a similar emotional resonance. Do you think that the music you were making at the time had a conscious impact on your comics?

ZS: It took me a while to realise that the stuff I was doing around that time (the work in Like A Dog and Recidivist #3, particularly) WAS a lot like music, in a way: a good song is neither the words, or the actual chords/ notes being played… it’s the thing that lies between all that, the way those chords/notes and the lyrics come together that make the sum greater than those parts… I’m by no means the first to bring up this correlation, but I think comics often work the same way: it’s not the “words” or text of the piece that gives it meaning, and it’s also not the images: it’s what happens when those 2 things mess with each other, what’s in between all that. I also don’t think I was consciously saying “I want my comics to be like SONGS, blah blah”, I just…  followed my nose; I had this idea or thing I had a compulsion to mess with, and usually something that I couldn’t quite explain to myself (which is why a lot of those comics are so… oblique, I think…) I guess if it was something simple and easy to express, you wouldn’t write a song or do a comic about it.

But as far as Low’s impact on my stuff… Hell, that was my LIFE for 12 years; those songs meant…. a LOT to me, and my bandmates were (are) extremely talented people; I admired the simplicity and grace of those songs, but at the same time knew that simplicity and grace were NOT my strong suits.

WF: One of my favourite strips in the book is ‘Dresden’, which you have described as the one thing printed here “that really sets [your] stomach churning”. Even so, I liked it because it stands out as you having tried something different, and it certainly struck a chord with me in the way it communicates reflection and isolation (amongst other things). Do you think the book succeeds in showing how you’ve developed as an artist, and how do you think you’ve developed from there?

ZS: You know, the really upsetting thing(s) to me about “Dresden” has to do almost entirely with technical/storytelling/cartooning aspects of my handling of that… experience; the event itself was pretty unbelievable, and I don’t fault myself for trying to tackle it in a comic; it’s just my cartooning skills that couldn’t cut it. Looking at it now, there’s something that seems very… forced and uncomfortable about that whole strip; like trying to fit into a suit that’s 3 sizes too small (and to further overburden the analogy, it’s a 70s disco suit anyway that you’ve got no business wearing to begin with)… But I do think its inclusion in the book points toward my development in that it stinks and I’m better now.

(I don’t want to sound like a dick, though – I’m glad you liked it, you know? I’ll take whatever I can get).

WF: You’ve talked about how John Porcellino (of King Cat Comics semi-fame) has influenced you in recent years, and it’s great to see his work has recently cropped up on your own La Mano 21 imprint. Would you say the two of you share common features or themes in your work?

ZS: The answer here might be very similar to your earlier question about the conscious effect being in Low had on my comics, or my life… I think if you were to look at John’s comics and my comics side by side, you’d be hard pressed to point to some aesthetic similarities on the surface, but… John’s work, and my friendship with John himself, has just had a huge effect on me: what he has done with King-Cat over the years I think is just about unparalleled in the comics medium (and most other mediums you’d care to name). I’m not even sure that our comics are working with the same ideas and themes in a way anyone could point at, but… really they are, in more ways than not. John is one of my closest friends.

We both really love and really hate what we do, and we’re both trying really hard to make good stuff and send it out into the world in a manner that we can feel good about in the greater scheme of things; we’re both from the American midwest and came up through some of the same, uh… things (the zine and “indy’ comics movement, and the kind of specific “post-punk” American underground music of the mid 80′s til….uh, Nirvana…).

We’re both just trying to make some sense of things.

Our art and stories look and sound different, but…

WF: Several of the strips in Like A Dog seem to be laced with a sort of existential angst. Would it be fair to say that you were using comics as a means to find answers for yourself, and if so is it an undercurrent of all your work?

ZS: As hard as it is for me to actually type it out – yes, it absolutely is a means of trying to wrestle with some of those big questions.

I mean, I really do think that’s an important thing for…everyone, for all human beings on some level – just asking “what am I doing here? why am I doing it? am I being an asshole, am I holding myself accountable for the things I’m doing in this life?”. People going to church or what-have-you is an entirely acceptable way of doing that, and always has been, throughout just about all cultures on the planet. It’s a structured way of sitting and thinking about things that are bigger than you, and at the risk of sounding like a total blowhard, I think the process of making comics (or “Art”) isn’t so far removed from that. I’m not dumb enough to think that I actually come up with “ANSWERS”, but it’s hard for me to type because….”existential angst” has a strange connotation; it’s not very “cool” to say this, but who the hell DOESN’T want to feel like and understand how their life has some meaning, you know? and the “angst”… I don’t know if it’s just how i’m wired or whatever, but… life can be great and it often is, and I really do consider myself to be a lucky, lucky guy: but… it’s NOT a cake walk, you know? It’s FUCKING HARD on a reasonably regular schedule, this life. It’s a STRUGGLE. Barely a week goes by where at some point, for some reason, I just am so frustrated by some….thing that I just want to throw a chair across the room (and in a lot of ways, I’m a more easygoing individual than I’ve ever been). And maybe that’s “angst”, I don’t know – maybe it’s just me and my, um, “issues”, but there it is; and you’ve got to figure out a way to NOT throw that chair across the room; and for me, comics is one of those ways.

WF: The book features a healthy number of medical cutaway drawings. To the reader this might seem like a playfully literal take on how an artist tries to get at what’s underneath, but what’s your take on it?

ZS: Well, basically I was obsessed with anatomy for a good number of years, and ended up collecting a pretty sizeable collection of medical/anatomy texts. I’m nowhere near as obsessive about it now, but again, at the risk of sounding pretentious, the more you understand about the human body, you can’t help just feeling like…the way this thing works is just …miraculous; the amount of miraculous events that occur in your body every second of every day, just to keep you eating and drinking and walking and thinking…it’s just an amazing, AMAZING machine (never mind that, you know, whatever you call your “personality” or “soul” is in there somewhere too…).

Besides all that, some of the drawings are just indescribably beautiful… I could look at that stuff all day (and it’s pretty fun to draw, as well…).

WF: Apologies for the generic question, but which comics did you read as a kid, and who would you say had the biggest influence on you? I’m chiefly interested because your work seems quite stylistically diverse, and not very obviously in a specific vein, which is quite refreshing.

ZS: I was a pretty typical superhero kid from an early age; I just read em and loved em; collected them, traded them, the whole thing. Then when I started to outgrow the superhero stuff, I was lucky enough to be bowled over by some of the drop-dead-amazing work that was happening at that time in the mid-eighties: Chester Brown’s Yummy Fur, RAW magazine was happening (and Weirdo, which I was unaware of at the time…), even some of the “progressive” superhero stuff like Watchmen, and then to run into Los Bros Hernandez’ Love and Rockets – basically, it was just drilled into me that comics were a medium and artform capable of ANYTHING, and that I’d just have to wait around and see if the rest of the world would ever figure it out, because to ME, it was…there was no question whatsoever. But, for a while, superhero comics became the “enemy”, for me: partly because they’d held a stranglehold on ALL comics for so incredibly long here in America, but also because I wanted comics to prove that they were SERIOUS, and REAL ART.  

But in the past few years, I’ve almost swung the other direction: I’ve SEEN all those things HAPPEN – serious narratives, Fine Art comics, etc etc and now that it’s all been proven beyond any doubt that comics can hold their own with any other art form…now I can read and enjoy ANY kind of comics – superhero stuff, genre stuff, whatever; as long as it’s GOOD, I love it.

Maybe it’s a reaction to MY comics being so “serious” for so long, but now I’m actually kind of…turned off by comics that take themselves too seriously; I feel like telling a good story is one of the oldest jobs in the world, and doing it well is no small thing, be it funny or serious or whatever. Lately, I find myself loving the simplest stuff the most, old Kirby and Tintin, but I kind of read everything I can get my hands on, really – the new Joe Sacco book is just unbelievably good; the guy is a national (international?) treasure.

I actually enjoy reading comics so much that it’s slightly embarrassing. The stylistic diversity you mention was, again, not that conscious on my part: it was, again, just having this thing or idea and having to find a way to come at it that made sense, to me; and strangely enough, that often meant I had to experiment with what I thought comics were or weren’t to get there. I was just searching for a way to make comics.

Not all of it worked, but I learned a lot.

WF: You appeared briefly in Jeffrey Brown’s book Little Things in 2008, which was funny, but also worth noting because it suggested you were beginning to gain more recognition as a comic artist than for the band you used to be in. Do you see yourself as part of an indie comic ‘scene’, for want of a better word? If so, which other artists or writers would you align yourself with?

ZS: I’m not sure where I fit in to the scene, to be honest; I’m too old to be anybody’s new anything, and have been doing this too long on certain levels to not feel like “this is my life’s work; this is what I’m here to do, make comics”, but…I don’t think I’m well-known at all; my books sell like shit.

I’m actually pretty depressed about it lately; I truly feel like i’m doing the best work of my life, and…. my “readership” barely cracks a thousand people worldwide. It’s not going to stop me, but….It’s pretty fucking disheartening, when you’re pushing 40. It doesn’t feel very… sustainable. Maybe I need to get an agent or some damn thing like that (which I don’t want to do), but something’s going to have to kick up a notch or 2… I mean, NOTHING’S going to stop me, but it sure does feel like pissing in the void sometimes.

But bitching aside, there’s lots of folks I feel an alliance with, in one way or another… Certainly John P, Sparkplug Comic books, oh man, there’s a lot of folks doing great stuff right now. It’s kind of astounding and wonderful.

WF: How did Like A Dog‘s publication via Fantagraphics come about? Will they be publishing any of your work in the future?

ZS: I’d been thinking about a collection of the first 2 Recidivists for a number of years, and had always figured that I’d eventually put it out myself, on La Mano; but the longer time went on, and the more I thought about what I might like that book to be like, the further it got from being something La Mano could handle, and it went further and further back on the list of priorities…one day, it struck me: if I stick to the idea that I’m doing this myself, it’s just NEVER GOING TO GET DONE. so I pitched the idea to my old friend Eric Reynolds at Fanta, and he (and La Mano artist Jason Miles, who by that time had become sales manager at Fanta) kind of…pushed it through. They believed that there was a book in there, and that I’d be able to wrangle these disparate strips into something cohesive, which I think was a real act of faith, because honestly – if you just looked at the strips themselves…it’d be kind of a shitty book. 

I can’t give those guys (and Fantagraphics in general) enough credit for not only taking the leap in the first place, but also allowing me to….MAKE that book, which sometimes meant leaving me alone and sometimes meant stepping in with some editorial ideas. Putting the book together with them was a great process, I liked it a lot. And, fanta is also the publisher of my ongoing Sammy The Mouse story, which I’ll be working on for the next decade or so.

WF: Finally, how are things going with La Mano 21? Do you have any plans for future releases?

ZS: Things with La Mano are good, I think: what La Mano does and is keeps changing and mutating, and it’s almost always on the verge of collapsing financially….but aside from THAT, it’s awesome; the next release will be a limited edition folio of prints by underground comics legend Kim Deitch. It’s going to be absolutely amazing: it’s work of his that has gone virtually unseen, and I’m totally honoured to be the guy putting it out into the world; hopefully I can get it done by the end of April…beyond that, there’s a ton of stuff I’d love to do, and have been threatening to do for some years now: a book with Chris Cilla, the collected RUMP magazine, a project with Brian Evenson, another secret magazine project that may be closer than I think it is….

It’s just a matter of how much time I can make for those things. We’ll see I guess.

 

Zak Sally’s Like a Dog is published by Fantagraphic Books

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