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Remarks given at the 189th meeting of the NY Comics & Picture-story Symposium

Edited for written form.

Hi everyone. Thank you for coming, I really appreciate it.

Unfortunately, my dad has had some health issues over the last few months, which have sent him to a rehab facility, so he won’t be able to join us.

Understandable, he turned 84 in June. He did have a message he wanted me to share with you:

Sorry that I can’t be here but I got pretty sick. I think about you all the time, and I think that we will see each other again some day, maybe in the pages of FKT magazine. I think that soon I will be able to leave this place where they’re already complaining I’ve been too long. It’s not a prison, but a recovery center. I have many new ideas, many. When we start up again the first thing will be to finish a two-page Il Numismatico story, the last piece for issue 25. A very romantic history, and macabre. I also want to do a whole issue about the place I’m at now. Lots of things happen here. But I have to leave first and think this all through. There’s a lot of different episodes. It’ll be an interesting issue for sure. See you soon. Buy a comic at FKT.co.

He put the plug in there. I told him to, but he did it.

My dad was already on dialysis three times a week when he started working on comics about five years ago, and has until recently managed to produce ten to fifteen pages a week anyway.

I’d like to start at the beginning.

The first known picture-stories are forty thousand years old—cave paintings. The purpose of such paintings, from the Paleolithic era, which ended ten thousand years ago, is not well understood. They weren’t just decorations, because the caves in which they’ve been found don’t have signs of being living spaces. A lot of them were in parts of caves that were hard to get to.

There’s a lot of theories about these drawings. That they had a religious or ceremonial purpose, or that they were a way of communication. Most religious or ceremonial acts communicate also anyway, right?

Around the world, the paintings bear striking similarities. Many feature animals. Humans are often depicted as images of hands, done with stenciling—my dad stencils some of the comics, titles, and uses stencils and protractors for body curves.

What do cave paintings have to do with comics?

A few years ago I got to crash the Harvey awards, when they were at Baltimore Comic Con, and hear remarks by Bill Willingham, the amazing creator of stuff like Fables.

He said something like, “I don’t want to ramble on,” but then said something like, let’s start at the beginning. I had hoped he meant cave drawings—he didn’t.

The idea of these cave drawings does relate to the topic of our talk, however, which is about constructing our own realities. One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons has one caveman, arrows and sticks in hands, telling another, who is drawing on the cave, “enough storyboarding, let’s shoot something.” The tension between storyboarding or planning, and shooting, isn’t limited to pre-historic hunting, or to film-making, which is what this cartoon most obviously references.

A lot of us probably know artists who spend years and years planning. They have countless ideas but don’t really execute any of them. At the other end are artists who constantly produce, but maybe without much forethought about what they’re doing.

I like to think I favor leaning toward the latter approach, as does my dad. Though our work does get planned out pretty well, the planning is sort of a part of the production process. When we launched FKT, we made it a monthly comics magazine to impose some rhythm to our work.

I made each issue 40 pages, and divided each with a two-page spread in the middle of the magazine, to impose more rhythm and order to my dad’s work. Within the first few issues, we settled on a pattern where the first half, or 18 pages, included shorter, serialized stories, and the back half, after the middle of the magazine spread, featured one longer stand-alone story. Sometimes the last page or last few pages would have a one-page work.

A lot of these stories quickly became intertwined with each other ,mostly, but not exclusively, through the flagship “A True Life Story” series, where I’m depicted as a money-hungry degenerate pig-man, and my dad as an alcoholic in a wheelchair.

The stories are not all, or even primarily, about us. We have the True Life stories, and the FKT Public Service Announcement series, where characters from other stories, mostly the True Life series, narrate PSAs, as well as a series about Warren Harding, a series called Detective Comics, a series about a nymphomaniac waitress named Britney, and so on.

I actually planned the FKT issues all out in a color-coded Excel sheet, which helped to visualize the inter-issue flow of the magazine. To some extent, once you’ve imposed order, rhythm, habit, repetition, you can let the stories tell themselves. Sometimes I didn’t know where our stories would go until they got there.

Let me take a break here to talk about the history of me and my dad’s comics work. It’ll all add up in the end, I promise.

My dad only started working on comics in his late seventies. This isn’t actually strictly true. He worked on some comic strips that ran in newspapers and magazines in Poland in his early twenties. They hadn’t been signed by him and he had completely forgotten about them. (It’s still a hassle today to get him to sign his cover illustrations and other comics work.) He had forgotten about these strips until they were found in Polish archives.

For most of his career, my father was, and is, a graphic artist and poster designer. He was a student of Henryk Tomaszewski, and part of the Polish school of poster art, which is known for its distinctive style, which includes painterly gestures, quality line work, and vibrant colors. Polish posters allowed the artist to instill in the work their own sense of individual personality and humor. Polish posters combined printed slogans with popular symbols to create crisp and concise metaphors, and because they were hybrids of words and images, the works created aesthetic tension.

Importantly, the posters did not exist merely as objective presentations. Instead, they included the artist’s interpretation and commentary on the subject of the poster and society at-large. This was no small feat in Stalinist Poland, and the nature of posters as advertising for films, theaters, festivals, and so forth, made it easier to hide more subversive content—it wasn’t what censors were looking for.

My dad likes to tell a story about working on illustration for a Polish magazine of some heroic battle of liberation the Russians won in Poland. He gave many of these soldiers numerous watches on both their hands. The censors caught it at the very last minute. The watches were there because, my dad says, Russian soldiers would loot and plunder the places they had “liberated,” and the number of watches they had signaled how brave they had been.

He used the same historical fact in one of his comics essays, about the story of his father’s Rolex. That appeared in our special Rolex product placement issue. I had seen some awful front page product placement advertising in one of the local Philly weeklies and thought, we could do better than that. So we made the Rolex issue, issue 12 of FKT, a kind of proof of concept of that.

Eventually, my dad moved on to larger-than-life-size paintings, in the Art Deco style. These paintings relied a lot on some of the conventions of Polish poster art, pushing them even further, in a certain sense. My dad still works on posters for commission for various clients, mostly in Poland, and on paintings as well, though in a slightly smaller format.

In his early seventies, about twelve years ago, my dad started writing his first book, Skyliner. The title comes from the Charlie Barnett hit of the same name, which had been adopted as a kind of secret anthem for anti-Communist youth in Poland at the time. Western pop culture, and especially in the 1950s, jazz, played a pretty sizeable role in fomenting a rejection of Communism in post-war Eastern Europe. But that’s a topic for another talk.

Skyliner was about my dad’s ill-fated attempt to escape Stalinist Poland in 1954, and how his love of American jazz, Hollywood movies, and beautiful women kept him going. My dad would not make it to America until 1985. We tell that story in the FKT series “King of the Ivy Hill,” the story of my dad settling in Newark, New Jersey, in the mid-1980s. He still lives and works there now.

My whole family laughed at my dad for deigning to write a book. We memorialized that in the True Life series too, in the very first one in fact. Eventually my dad conscripted me to translate this meandering hundred-some-odd thousand word manuscript that he had written in his native Polish across numerous notebooks and then typed up, pecking letter-by-letter.

“The greatest collaborations are purely exploitative.” It’s a line from the very first page of the first True Life story, “The Making of Skyliner: A True Life Story #1.” On and off, it probably took about six years to translate the manuscript. It probably took a year for me to finish the first page alone—I was not particularly committed to the project.

My dad spent my whole life telling me long stories, about his childhood in World War 2 and about coming of age under Stalinist Poland. Many were shaggy dog tales, long-winded and winding stories that don’t end anywhere. But they were good atmosphere pieces, so to speak. I can speak Polish pretty well, but my reading skills, not to mention my writing skills, lagged far behind. So even though I had no expectation that anything would come of my dad’s so-called book, I saw a reason to humor it. It seemed valuable to have some of my dad’s shaggiest stories in written form, and it was a good way to improve my Polish literacy. Polish has been found to be one of the most difficult languages on Earth to learn. It’s a good thing it’s so useful.

By the time I was finishing the translation of Skyliner, the original was being published in Poland. My dad had gotten a book deal. At the beginning, we laughed at him, but now he was getting the last laugh. After finishing the Skyliner translation, I briefly tried to pitch it to different literary agents. No one bit, which wasn’t surprising. It’s a great story, and was far more intricately planned and constructed than I had assumed based on the yarns he used to spin for me, and still does, but it was not exactly mass market stuff. That was around 2012.

Shortly after, my dad started working on his first comic, a sixteen page story titled “Donald & His Grandpa.” He made the whole thing out of four sheets of a tougher paper, and took it to the local copy shop where he made it darker. Then he asked me to translate it. No way, I said. I translated it for him anyway, but this was like a nightmare for me. I did not want to waste the remaining years of my twenties as my dad’s translator.

But my dad had caught comics fever. My brother had bought him a bunch of underground and indie comics online, stuff like the Meathaus collections and the Best of American Comics anthologies. My dad discovered his favorite cartoon in one of these collections. It was by Doug Allen, a Playboy cartoonist. It was a one or two-page cartoon, if I remember correctly, about a father-daughter couple who get lost in redneck country. They stop to ask for directions and end up getting roasted alive by these half-pig, half-men monstrosities.

The idea to depict myself as a pig in the True Life stories, though, didn’t actually come from that cartoon. What happened was, someone close to me accused me of collaborating on comics with my dad as a get rich quick scheme. And we all know what a tried and true road to riches comics are. So I decided, well, it would be cool to tell the story of me and my dad doing comics as if that were true. As if we were in it to hit the jackpot.

There’s a long tradition in comics of this kind of self-deprecating (an imprecise word to be sure) autobiographical stuff—it’s some of my favorite. There’s a Howard Cruse story about a bunch of hippies dropping a bunch of acid. It’s all played very straight until up to the very end, when they eat somebody. Cannibalism. I ripped that for the ending of one of the longer stand-alone stories in FKT, “Tullock and Tonawanda.” I got the name Tullock from Tullock’s lotto, which is an all-pay auction, which kind of like a penny auction, which is kind of like a scam. (The name Tonawanda came from a town on the road to Niagara Falls that gave me a laugh on our way up for our honeymoon.) There’s a Dennis Kitchen cartoon, too, where he, the publisher, is apologizing to a cartoonist for how low the pay is. The story continues with Dennis living the high life, and ends with him partying with Hugh Hefner. I fell in love with this genre. I’d met a couple of artists in Philly I came to admire, Rob Woods and Dave Proch, who both worked in a similar self-deprecating genre. It’s one that fit my dad as well. Skyliner was full of that. My dad insisted it was a one hundred percent true autobiography, but I describe it as semi-autobiographical.

Once I realized my dad was going to be making comics by hook or by crook, I figured I should take some control so I wouldn’t be stuck as a personal translator. I suggested to him that if he wanted to keep making comics after the Donald and his grandpa story (which ended up running in FKT issue 3), we should adapt Skyliner into a comic book. I spent the next year or so adapting the two-hundred-some-odd-page text into eleven thirty-two page comics issues. We started working on the first issues before I had completed the entire adaption. At first my scripts were very specific. The way the protagonist throws the draft letter into the trash can on the first page of Skyliner had to be just so. But eventually I learned that I didn’t have to do this. That, given the barest of direction on panel layout and content, he knew how to make it work. It should not have been surprising. Like I said earlier, Polish posters were a kind of merging of image and word into a singular work of art. Comics work much the same way.

I thought for sure after we finished Skyliner, the drive to do comics would have worked through my dad’s system. But it only made him more excited to do more. First, we had to do something with all the comics we produced. The first four issues of Skyliner I got printed through an on-demand printer I met at MoCCA in New York, the last year they were at the armory. Unfortunately after the fourth issue, he went out of business. We put that in the True Life stories too. They’re a history of our comics work that are untethered to the real world but still hew to it for plot, character, and setting elements. We didn’t find a suitable replacement for the printer, ComiXPress. We kept working through the issues, covers and all, anyway. When we finished, we had eleven thirty-two page issues plus eleven covers.

The thing about comics is you have to publish them. They’re a different kind of art, in that way, from the paintings and posters my dad did. So we ran a Kickstarter to raise money to print the issues in one collected work. A good friend of mine, Rupert Manderstam, interviewed my dad for us and made a video for the Kickstarter campaign. [LINK] He was actually a little offended we didn’t include him in that first episode of the True Life stories that covered the making of Skyliner. I explained to him that the True Life stories turned us all into monsters and that just wasn’t him. We introduced him later in the True Life series, and kept him as a clean-cut kid, if a little clueless. Crowdfunding and on-demand printing have broken down a lot of the barriers for comics artists to pull their creations from the ether and into the real world.

After we closed Skyliner, and got two hundred fifty beautiful three hundred sixty eight page copies printed up in China, I thought we were done. But my dad, like I said, had only become even more excited to do comics. That’s when I came up with the idea of a monthly comics magazine. I thought “Fucked” would have made a good magazine title. My dad insisted on something short, so I suggested FKT. We started pronouncing it fuckt pretty quickly. The first issue included eighteen pages worth of excerpts from Skyliner. It also included by dad’s first post-Skyliner story, an eighteen-page comic titled “Pulaski Day,” or, because I like longer, more descriptive titles, “The Great Pulaski Day Pig Heist.” We continued the Skyliner excerpts for the first ten issues. This let us place some of our favorite Skyliner stories in a vehicle other than a heavy three hundred sixty eight page thing like Skyliner, and make them ore accessible to casual readers. The use of Skyliner excerpts also helped us speed up our creative process slowly, and get into the rhythm capable of producing forty pages a month. We got 24 issues before my dad’s health derailed us.

Last summer, we fell behind a little bit when my dad may have had a much younger girlfriend. He did an issue about her too—her identity was protected with a black bar across her eyes and the fact that my dad doesn’t try to draw almost anyone in the comics how they actually look. Issue 25 was almost done on time—we were missing the cover pages and the middle of the magazine spread. This would usually take my dad two to three days at the most. But, before he even got sick, he decided he wanted the middle of the magazine spread to be a two page Il Numismatico story. I probably should have put my foot down and told him we just need a simple spread instead, but I thought, after 24 issues, you can bend your self-imposed conventions a little.  But you need to set them before you bend them. He ended up in the hospital about half-way through planning out this two page Il Numismatico story.

Il Professore di Numismatico was a one page series, and the only proper spin-off from Skyliner. We ran a page from Skyliner that was titled “Saturday Bridge” in issue 2 of FKT, and introduced the Il Numismatico story in issue 3. We ran another one in issue 4, where we had a spare page in the front half because of an odd-number of Skyliner excerpts. We came back to the Il Numismatico series for issues 12, 15, and 19. The last installment, in issue 19, was inspired by my dad’s new-found love for the television show “Hogan’s Heroes.” It also featured a pig since the theme of that issue was the pig son.

We revealed the pig son’s name for the first time in that issue, which involved a human version of me coming back to take over for the pig. But he was a gold digger, a fortune hunter. The appearance of the usurper kicked off the three episode run of the True Life stories I wanted to end the first volume of the “A True Life Story” series with. That concluded in issue 20, and we were able to launch a Kickstarter to collect the first twenty two True Life stories, which appeared in the first 20 issues, into one trade paperback. Writing this final narrative arc proved a little more uncomfortable than I thought.

My wife hates that I depict myself in my dad’s dirty comics as a pig man. So when we did a whole issue about our first baby, I had to create a new version of me that was all human, separate from the fortune hunter, because I promised my wife I wouldn’t depict our baby girl as a piglet. It would’ve been grand, and I’m sure when she’s old enough, if she shares her father and grandfather’s sense of humor, she would’ve loved it. But by the time I got to the closing arc, I realized. But by the time I got to this closing arc, I realized that the line between the pig and me was maybe not as obvious as I had liked to imagine. I’m not a pig, not really, but I did identify on some intimate level with the pig character.

“I exist here,” the pig son says in issue 20, in the “Becky & the Pig Son” story, after he’s been kicked out of the True Life story. It was one of my favorite lines. I cribbed this one from the pilot episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, where the wormhole beings met Commander Sisko. The beings didn’t exist in linear time, so their meeting with Sisko shuffled through different periods of his life. But it always came back to the moment where he lost his wife in a Borg attack. “You exist here,” the wormhole aliens told Sisko. I liked that line, and it felt true. The me that exists in the comics exists there. Art allows us to create our own realities and even to get lost in them. It allows us to create these realities even if we don’t fully understand them, like those cavemen.

I’d like to engage Jon Snow’s speech in Sunday’s season finale of Game of Thrones, the one during the summit in the first part of the episode. Without ruining anything from the show, Snow finds himself in a position where telling a lie, even just a white lie, could save the day. He was asked to make a pledge he could not honor, but the person asking him to make the pledge did not know that. She did know, however, that he had been brought up with a sense of honor and would not lie. She was right, and Snow’s allies were upset about it. They ask Snow why he couldn’t tell one small lie for the obviously greater good.

He says: I’m not going to swear an oath I can’t uphold. Talk about my father if you want, tell me that that’s the attitude that got him killed. But when enough people make false promises, words stop meaning anything. Then there are no more answers, only better and better lies, and lies won’t help us in this fight.

One of the show’s actors, Liam Cunningham, who plays Davos Seaworth, talked about that scene with Variety this week. It was filmed, he said, the day after Donald Trump won, and was obviously on everyone’s mind. It’s very relevant, because the things Jon Snow says are old and the things he says are true. One theory about the evolution of language in humans as opposed to other primates was that there was enough trust within human communities to make it worth learning a shared system of language. In other words, there weren’t enough liars taxing the system in such a way that it wasn’t valuable to learn this system.

Of the many things that make Trump a unique threat, this breakdown, what Jon Snow refers to in a scene written before most people thought Trump could ever win, may be the most existential one. Trump is in part a product of a reality TV industry and reality TV-obsessessed culture. There is, of course, nothing real about reality television. It can be just as scripted as any scripted show, and far more fake.

But art provides a space for us to bend the truth, and to create our own, without that corrosive cost to language and society, to social cohesion. Politics already blur the line between entertainment and reality, and Trump, dangerously, has knocked the wall between the two down. Every politician is, on some level, a performer. Trump has disposed of the pretense that a politician is anything else, and has embraced the role of a performer. He’s a villain, in the real world and in our comics stories, but he’s the hero of his own story and the one he tells his supporters and the ones they tell themselves.

You had some faith that most of what I’ve said tonight was true, because why would I lie? And those of you reading it, have faith that “edited for written form” isn’t cover for massive changes. This is a presentation, not a performance. In the talk, I could've turned it into a performance by doing a comic reading, and did. It was the second comic reading of FKT. It went well. Until video comes out, if it even does, you’ll have to trust me.

"Creating Your Own Reality in the Age of Trump"

New York City. August 29, 2017.


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