Livin' to Draw, Drawin' to Live
Some cartoonists just do it -- draw. Always. Like a shark, forever swimming to keep breathing, to keep the water flowing over the gills. Hence, pioneer CCS graduate Sam (aka Tito the Shark) draws, day in, day out, and remains an inspiration to us all here at CCS.
Well, OK, he also makes music. And eats. And sleeps. And does other stuff, too. Read, for instance. Watch TV.
But mainly, I saw Sam draw for two years. I know the top of his head better than his mug; he was always drawing.
Sam also won a coveted Xeric Award this spring -- the second CCSer to do so, on the heels of his classmate and fellow 2007 grad Alexis Frederick-Frost (to be interviewed here, too, this coming week).
Pizza (and comics) Wizard
SB: What's your background, Sam?
SAM GASKIN: Okay, well, I've lived in Holden, Massachusetts my whole life really. It's the epitome of suburbia and I live right next door to the high school, so you can imagine. No kids lived near me, so I spent a lot of quality time with TV, which probably explains a lot of things about me. Naturally, growing up I was a bored kid, so friends and I would end up hitting soda cans with baseball bats, throwing computer monitors out of moving cars, etc. I slept through a large part of school, even the one year at Fitchburg State College I attended. I would go for the sake of going, being told it was necessary. I always knew I wanted to get into some sort of media, I was just having a lot of trouble choosing. Film required too much interpersonal work, my writing was too cheesy, I didn't understand most computer programs, what else could I do?
SB: When did you first get into reading comics?
SAM: Of course, I've been reading comics since I can remember, lots of newspaper strips: Calvin & Hobbes, The Far Side, Fox Trot, Bloom County, even Garfield! I never really got into the newsstand floppies, it all looked the same to me, and it didn't make me laugh, except for Sonic the Hedgehog (which I should mention is one of things that unifies [fellow CCSer] Dane Martin and myself)! Something about the feeling of reading a video game really caught me then, and I bet you can read that in my stuff now, even though I don't really play them anymore. Who knows how this stuff affected me, man. And then there was that fateful day in fourth grade when my Mom bought me my first issue of Mad magazine. I brought that thing to school every day and read it during silent reading time, over and over and over! I still have it, even though the cover is sort of falling off. From then on, I got every single issue, every super special, every reprint, for Cracked too! I couldn't get enough of that stuff. Eventually, late in high school, I found my way into the comics shop and discovered the (for lack of a better term) "indie" stuff, but there's hardly anything behind that. I'll sum it up in five words, thank god for Evan Dorkin!
SB: Milk and Cheese, Dork, and so on -- Evan’s stuff is great. Let’s talk about your earlier comics work. What was your first comic or minicomic?
The modest cover for Trek (2006)
SAM: I did little stuff, like one pagers and things all through childhood, but I guess my real first project was Trek, which was wholly inspired by Mat Brinkman. It's a 45-page story I drew in 2004 as a drawing project for Fitchburg State about two monsters looking for the home of this magic crystal. I improvised the whole thing, never penciled, and drew it entirely in Sharpie. I was really obsessed with the Fort Thunder guys for a long time, that first issue of Paper Rodeo was just like the first issue of Mad, I seriously carried it everywhere. I especially loved Mat probably because of the adventure and the humor. When I did Trek, I basically ripped off Multi-Force in entirety.
SB: What led you to becoming part of the first-ever class at CCS?
SAM: My parents brought home an article in the Boston Globe about the school, the one with James, Ana Merino, and I think Art Spiegelman all standing in the Colodny space. I don't remember if I read the whole thing before I hit the web to learn more. I knew that this was something I wanted to do, no doubts in my mind. I would make my parents happy by going to college, and I would actually learn something that I cared about and would stay awake for... mostly (there were some late nights, man!).
SB: You arrived at CCS with a strong affinity with Paper Rodeo and Fort Thunder’s guerrilla creative work, their comics and music coalitions. Care to talk about those a bit more, Sam, and your experience with that body of work? There doesn't seem to be much of anything on line or in print about them...
SAM: Here are some links and images, Steve. There's never been an official website for this stuff, so whatever you can find, that's it, I guess!
Paper Rodeo was funny in this great way that no one signed any of their work, so I can still go back and look at certain parts and be like "oh, I know who did that now!"
SB: Do you feel part of that scene, or outside of it, as a successor?
Paper Rodeo installation invitation 'logo thingie'
SAM: Even though I got a drawing into the last issue, I am in no way part of that, as badly as I want to be, as badly as a lot of people want to be, we all missed the boat. Everything about the residual Fort Thunder concept is weird, Tom Devlin and I were joking about all the misconceptions there are about it, like that he and Ben Jones lived there and stayed up all night playing Nintendo and hacky-sack. Now, there are tons of people who are weaseling their way into art galleries with really busy marker drawings or something equally uninspired. It's sort of like watching reruns; yeah, they look nice, but I've seen them all before and it's the same old tricks. I think they were a really great archetype for friends getting together and inspiring each other and just exploding everywhere, but too many individuals are just copy-catting them at this point. The art world is another can of worms though, I won't get into that. Tom knows though, I had a lot of trouble letting go of that and really making my own comics, not comics that look like others. He really pushed me, and I love him for it (you hear me, mister!). He gave me this weird analogy with something about Ska bands, it was really great. So I don't know if I would say that I'm a successor, but it's definitely made a huge impact on what I do now of course. I mean, I've met a few of those guys, and we're friends and all... I guess I just feel that I relate to people like that more, like I'm not going to be hanging out with Adrian Tomine any time soon, you know? I don't want to sit in my own camp by myself, I want to see my friends work, it excites and motivates me. Did that make sense? Was that coherent? Did I even answer the question?
Photo: Lightning Bolt, one of Sam's fave bands
SB: You most certainly did! What’s your own music like, Sam, and how does that crossover into your comics work?
SAM: Music is weird. I start a new band with myself every week, I'm not sure if it's something I'll ever be able to pursue in any sort of "professional" way, you know, like actually recording songs or touring, I’m never satisfied with what I’m doing. Most of the time though, the idea is showmanship over musicianship, I want people to go to a show and have fun. This usually involves me running around the room or breaking things. Lights, fog, I got it all, man. I guess Pizza Wizard kind of relates because I'm trying to create this big world with lush environments, so it's sort of the same showoff "look at me" idea, that's one way to interpret it, I suppose. Haha, well, I hate to say it, I guess that's a Fort Thunder thing too sort of, wearing lots of hats. I'm doing this new thing, I taped a microphone to my bass drum and put it through effects, so it's sort of like automated accompaniment when I play. I think it would help if I had someone to be in a band with, but so far that hasn't worked out.
I’m also into this band, Noise Nomads, right now which is this guy, Jeff Hartford, from Western Massachusetts. Check him out, total trash sound, I love it. Again, that's the reason I put ads for record labels and things in Pizza Wizard, I'm excited about what others are doing, so I want to help them out, and I want to hear more!
SB: OK, let’s get into your comics, Sam. Before Pizza Wizard emerged, you were working on an expansive narrative that you began in 2006 and intended as your thesis project -- what was that, and will it see light of day?
SAM: Oh, that thing, um... definitely maybe. I keep getting new ideas all the time and I can't even get them down on paper fast enough, and I have this new thing that I'm really excited about, so I might just keep it on the shelf for now. Who knows, maybe in ten years I'll have a real intense dry spell and it will be the perfect thing to pick up again. I'll keep it in a dark place for now, but I'll give it plant food, just enough to keep it alive, but not to grow. I've got plenty going on though, don't worry about that!
SB: I love Faux Pas. When did you start those, and how many have there been to date? Tell us about ‘em...
SAM: The first Faux-Pas was my final project for first semester last year. It has a really nice cover and will hopefully never be seen by anyone ever again. There are too many embarrassing things I had to include per whatever requirements there were for the project. There are four total and I'm hoping to have a fifth in time for SPX, and then they should be collected next year. It's really just been an outlet for me to mix all the little things I do together, jokes and things that shouldn't go beyond a few pages, short stories, funny sketchbook pages, as much variation as possible.
SB: You’ve done a lot of those short parody pieces and single-pagers goofing on the pop culture: TV shows, Spiderman and so on. Where have those seen print?
SAM: So far, they're only in my zines. Some of them might be in the next Unicorn Mountain, if I ever remember to mail it out. I guess I've been kind of negligent on that... I have a very guilty look on my face right now
SB: What’s Unicorn Mountain?
Joe Lambert cover art for the Face Book, Graduation Edition (May, 2007); this was the second publication of the Face Book, which was the CCS pioneer graduate class's 'yearbook'.
SB: What’s the Face Book?
SAM: Haha, okay, so I drew this one picture of Rich Tommaso by tracing a photograph, which by my hand made him look completely wonky and and nutty. Everyone in the class seemed to really like it for some reason, so James and Michelle commissioned me to draw everyone in the class as a sort of yearbook. Joe Lambert did a really nice job packaging it to give out at graduation, a real nice color cover for a bunch of kooky looking caricatures. No one complained, so I guess I did something right.
SB: Hey, I love it, hence my question. What’s your latest comic creation?
SAM: Okay, so there's Pizza Wizard, right? As if he hasn't weaseled his way into the blog world enough already! Put simply, it is about a tiny wizard looking for magic pizza. Why? Your guess is as good as mine. This is the full-on manifestation of all those comic strips and cartoons and bad jokes and action figures and Magic cards and rock music and everything else that's made me who I am today and I am so, so sorry. Issue #1 premieres at MoCCA and issue #2 is say, 1/8 finished. By Christmas, maybe? There will also be a collection of my Faux-Pas series of mini-comics come next year, and another book sometime later called Sugarcube which is a sort of coming-of-age story (another thing I'm a sucker for), and then something else which I'm not gonna talk about here (top secret for now!).
SB: Where did Pizza Wizard come from? I still fondly remember the class crit when you shared that first single-page Pizza Wizard with us, and everyone fell in love with it.
SAM: Should I reveal that already? Maybe I should keep it a secret for a while. I guess I'll tell. So when I was doing the original copy of the CCS Facebook, there was a picture of [CCS co-founder] Michelle Ollie with a quote underneath that said "who wants pizza?", because seriously, man, she was always getting us free pizza, it was awesome. When she saw this, she said, "What am I, the pizza wizard?" Basically, bells went off in my head that this was the greatest title I had ever heard in my life and that I had to start drawing it immediately. I mean, do you know anyone who doesn't like pizza? There's a whole theory behind the unification powers of pizza, but I won't get into that now. And wizards are just cool. It quickly evolved into this thing that allowed me to draw the most fun things imaginable, castles and monsters, and the characters came easy because I actually built most of them.
"Put Butts Here": Sam, following instructions outside of Sweetie's, Marlboro VT, 2006 (Photo: Joe Lambert)
SB: Pizza Wizard landed you a Xeric grant. What was that process like, and when did this all go down?
SAM: I really didn't expect to win that at all. I applied before for Trek and didn't get it, I talked to a lot of people who applied a lot of times, and this time I only sent them the first 16 pages, so I was really surprised. It was actually pretty easy to do, I don't have any money or assets or anything like that, so filling out the paperwork was no problem, and doing something short and cheap made getting a printer much easier. Actually getting a response from a book printer is a real pain. My friends Barry and Leon in New York helped me through the process too, more than I can ever thank them for.
SB: Pizza Wizard involved -- involves -- you working essentially in a different style every single page. Each is its own universe: there's fresh logo and title lettering design every page, a different rendering style and drawing challenge each page, and so on. What prompted you to push yourself so extensively, and in the scope of one mercurial venture?
SAM: I don't really know what prompted that, I guess I just wanted to challenge myself to play with layout and to be a better designer, figuring out the title location and font is actually one of my favorite parts. Maybe I was reading too much Acme Novelty or something, but I knew I wanted things to be big and individual, like Gasoline Alley sundays or Little Nemo. Not that I'm comparing my work to any of those things, my output and draftsmanship are deplorable next to them.
SB: You also based some of the creatures and characters in Pizza Wizard on these fusion 'mutant toys' you create at your leisure. What's that all about, how long have you been doing it, and are the plastic fumes fucking you up, Sam?
SAM: What? Who are you again? No, if anything is fucking me up, it's the solder I've been inhaling since I took up circuit-bending. I've been making the action figures for probably a year now, my friend Danny and I started after seeing some of the ones Jacob Berendes had made. It was it's own thing at first, but now it helps out a lot, totally eliminates the need to come up with new, disposable characters. I just go over to the shelf and pick one out. It's nice, I'd like to have a gallery eventually, maybe once I have a hundred or so.
SB: With the Xeric grant in hand, you could have published Pizza Wizard in a grander format. Why the low-tech newsprint format, Sam? -- it's a consistent aesthetic in all your published work thus far.
SAM: I just figured that if it's sort of like a newspaper comic, why not make it a newspaper? I really like that format too, it's cheap to print, and it's sort of become it's own art object in a way. My first priority at this point is to make it accessible to as many people as possible. Plus, it's big! It would be so difficult to deal with a regular printer for a special project like that. I guess it comes back to the Paper Rodeo thing too, except this one's alllllll mine, baby.
SB: You just wrapped up two years at CCS and graduated with flying colors. Do you feel part of a community now, and if so, what is it?
SAM: I definitely feel like I'm deep into the community of all cartoonists. I don't know about our class, only time will tell there. It'll be interesting to see who's still drawing in a few years. That's a can of worms that should probably stay closed, all the weird relationships that our class had, I probably have half my facts wrong on that anyway. Comics is a community in itself though, I'll leave it at that. Also, Dane Martin, please e-mail me.
SB: Dane, follow up! Sam, is there anything you absolutely would not do in comics? Where are your personal boundaries and parameters circa 2007?
SAM: Probably not. I mean, I won't draw any religious extremist pamphlets or anything that promotes hate or anything like that, but otherwise, I'd do anything. I would draw for DC or Big Boy or anything. I don't know if I'd get bored doing those things, but none of them will ever hire me anyway, so I guess it's a moot point.
SB: If there were no obstacles, no inhibitions in terms of time, money, types of media or mergers of media and so on -- what would you be doing creatively, Sam?
SAM: There aren't really any of those things right now, actually! I don't have a job, no real expenses, I'm free to work on all my different projects all day long most of the time. I mean, if I had more money and access, maybe I'd start a television or radio show or record label or something like that. But otherwise, I'm pretty content.
SB: Then you’re a doubly-blessed man, Sam. Great talking to you, thanks for sharing!
Have a great Wednesday, one and all!