Sunday, June 17, 2007

Happy Father's Day and the Alex Joon Kim Interview: CCS/MoCCA, Comics & Architecture

With MoCCA happening this coming weekend (June 23-24), it's a full week of CCS/MoCCA interviews ahead here at Myrant, beginning today!

Today's is a real treat, due in no small measure to the world of experience and fascinating orientation to the comics medium that CCS senior Alex Joon Kim brings to his creations and to CCS. I've learned a great deal from everyone at CCS, but must confess to having my mind blown by Alex's work on a regular basis (which is some I can honestly say, too, about most of his fellow CCS seniors's work).

Alex also opened our eyes at CCS to a previously-hidden facet/conjunction of comics and fanzine history that's well-known in architecture circles but which I'd never, ever heard of in my three+ decades working professionally in comics and lifelong path as a comics reader and fan.

But -- I'm getting ahead of the interview. This is for Alex to share, not I!

So, set aside a little bit of your Sunday to savor the art, comics and thoughts of Alex Joon Kim -- Enjoy!

An interview with Alex Joon Kim:
The Bird and The Bear, Doormats of Life

SB: What's your background, Alex? You left an active professional life to come to CCS --

ALEX KIM: I went to school in New York City, The Cooper Union School of Architecture. After graduating, I worked in an architecture office in the city for about four years. Now I'm here. Before college, I grew up in New Jersey... or Joisey, I should say.

SB: When did you discover comics? When did you fall in love with the medium?

ALEX: I can remember reading some Calvin and Hobbes and some assorted Marvel comics when I was growing up but I was never too into them. I really started to get into it after reading Chris Ware's stuff. That was maybe two years after college. Since then, it's been a whirlwind of absorbing all types of comics that I had never seen before and of going back and digging out my old Calvin and Hobbes books.

  • Alex's high school memories -- click here for a larger, readable version to avoid undue eyestrain!

  • SB: When did you get into creating your own comics?

    ALEX: The first comic I made was a submission for an anthology shortly before I applied to The Center For Cartoon Studies. It must have been the winter of '05. I read about it on the internet with only a week before the deadline, so that week I went home immediately from work everyday and tried to draw. I'm not sure what made me do it, but I remember feeling very compelled... The comic was called Totem, about a guy in his twenties having a mid-life crisis and talking about it with the animals on a totem pole while climbing it. I was 26 at the time.

    "Lament of the Honest Man," pg. 6, December 2006

    SB: What led you to that link to CCS?

    ALEX: During the fall semester of 2005, I took a continuing education class at SVA [School of Visual Arts]. It was an ink drawing class taught by Matt Madden. During one of the classes he showed us CCS's poster (the one by Seth) as an example of some inking technique (I forget which one (sorry Matt!)), and talked a little bit about the school. After that I went and looked it up on the good ol’ internet for more information. I was thinking about going back to school during that time, mostly cause I think I was having a mid-life crisis (I actually still feel like I'm having one) and cause I thought I needed a break from city life. I figured going back to school was a good way of taking a break so I looked up all sorts of programs in all sorts of places. But for all the thinking about schools and programs, I ended only applying to CCS, and I just somehow, luckily enough, found myself here.

    I do feel foolish for thinking I was (and still am) having a mid-life crisis. When I was 25, I came up with a five-year plan that I've been trying to stick with. I can see now that it's a really lame plan and I'm even ashamed to bring it up, but there was one good thing about it. I told myself that I would be in a new environment every year for the next five years (though even that one wasn't as drastic as it could have been -- I defined a new environment as moving apartments). So, yeah, I came up with a lame five-year plan that didn't really include really include anything life changing or mind blowing, but, again, luckily enough, I stumbled into something that I can consider life changing and mind blowing.

    SB: What was that four-year pro NYC architecture gig like? What were you doing, exactly?

    ALEX: The four years between undergrad and CCS I spent working at ROY, an architecture office in Manhattan. Lindy Roy, the founder of ROY, was one of my thesis professors. Around the fall after I finished school, she needed someone to freelance on a model. I was called in for that and started on the model, but it was soon canceled and the project was put on hold for a little bit. At the same time, one of the her projects was about to open and two of the people working there were leaving (or had just left), so they needed full time help on short notice. Since I was around anyway, I pretty much just started... the way I remember it, she was too busy to interview me and look at a portfolio and since she knew me from school I guess she didn't feel it was necessary. Lucky for me as I didn't even have a portfolio then. I still feel like I got away with something by being hired so easily. Sometimes I think it really was one of those cases where I just kept showing up and they were nice enough to put up with me (and pay me).

    I had a great time working at ROY. I went in a snot-nosed little punk and came out pretty much the same. But I feel like I learned something new every single day. And it was so amazingly nice to work in a place where I really believed in the projects. It was a great environment to work in also. We did have to work pretty hard... there was one particularly busy stretch where I think we worked everyday for like four weeks straight before getting a Sunday off. But it was all worth it and I still miss the office. It was a big privilege to have worked for and worked with the people there - some of the most talented, intelligent and diligent folks. Lindy is great, too. She is by far the best person I've worked for. I think, during school, I worked for, like, seven different architects (which, OK isn't that much) and she beats them all.

    I know all of that sounds like a load of crap and that I'm sugar coating it all, but that's how I remember it. I was really fortunate to have a job where I didn't feel like I sold my soul for a paycheck. Well, not every day at least. Part of it also is that I tend to romanticize architecture quite a bit. I can't help it... I guess I'm just a romantic at heart. I just really love it... and am, in my own personal way, am obsessed with it.

    More from The Bird and the Bear origin story (2007)

    So, let's see. There was of course the fair share of coffee getting, copy making, faxing, messenger calling, water cooler bottle changing, garbage collecting, dishwasher loading, etc... in the beginning... and, actually, for my entire time there (the joys of working in a small office). But, other than that, most of my time was spent drawing on the computer, in autoCAD. In the beginning I would mostly make corrections in the computer that the project managers made on paper. Sounds boring, I know, but it turned out to be somewhat therapeutic. And you feel so productive after going through a whole stack of corrections. Eventually I would work on the actual drawings and design for whatever project. At the end of my time there, I was, somewhat surprisingly, given the responsibility of running a project all by my lonesome - though of course there were always more experienced people keeping an eye on me and I had to run everything by Lindy. And, OK, that responsibility was, let's say, incidental. It just kind of happened and I ran with it and didn't let it go. That's another good thing about working in a small design firm -- being given (or coming upon) responsibility that you don't know if you should have (As long as you don't mess it up, its a good thing).

    If you can't tell, I'm really glossing over a lot of the details. There's of course everyday stuff that you just have to deal with that aren't all that fun.

    All in all, as much as I love architecture and miss it and still consider myself an architect (except that, OK, I can't legally call myself and architect as I'm not registered... I guess I can call myself an architectural designer, though that sounds just really, horribly, pretentious, so I'm sticking with architect) and still plan on going back to it in some form or another, it can be a hard life. Depending on what you want to do in it, it can be a hard life. Most of the time, you're overworked, not paid well, and under appreciated. Sounds like being a cartoonist, I guess. And, as is the case with cartooning, if you don't love it and aren't absolutely committed to it you will just eventually crumble -- and by that I mean get another job, I guess.

    The Bird and the Bear: Doormats of Life, another sequence from their origin story (2007)

    SB: OK, let’s jump to the present and dance around a bit before covering your first CCS year. Now, you’re a cartoonist, and you’ve been incredibly productive, Alex. What’s your latest solo comic creation?

    ALEX: My new comic is The Bird and The Bear, Doormats of Life - it's what I'd call a modern, gripping take on masked heroes... actually, that’s how it was described on
  • the I Know Joe Kimpel site’s blog.
  • Also about a young couple unhappy in their life together, needing a change. I'm also working with Jess Abston, a great poet from Vermont, on a poem comic. It turns out it's a little difficult to describe, but I guess if I had to, I would say that we're trying to really bring the two mediums together in a thoughtful, elegant way. So it's more than just taking one of her poems and doing a literal comic of it or just illustrating it. I don't know if that makes sense, but it's fun to work on and will be very compelling to read once it's done. Jess's poem is also very well done so it makes the process easier and more difficult at the same time.

    SB: You’re also working on a big collaborative project -- as a cartoonist and editor --

    ALEX: I'm one of six editors putting together the Sundays Anthology. Here's a little excerpt from the Sundays website, written by fellow editor Jeff Lok:

    Chuck Forsman's simple, but elegant theme was to create a newspaper strip you would like to see. Really though, it's an excuse to see what everyone does given a large format. We realized, pretty quick, as first year got to the halfway point, we had talent to design a beautiful book, bind it nicely, and go big. More importantly though, we had talent for content to fill a big book. We can't wait to show the comics community the talent only we, for the most part, have known existed for a year to two years. Note some cartoonists not attending the school as students on our pages. One of the wonderful things about CCS is the comic's community that moved here to be in the thick. We're so glad to have the satellites in our Sunday sky. It's all the brighter.”

    I couldn't have said it better. The Sundays website is
  • right here.

  • It's astounding what Alex can do with those itty, bitty hands of his (Photo: Joe Lambert)

    SB: You've completed a pretty expansive multi-pager for Sundays. Ten pages, yes?

    ALEX: The story I'm doing for the Sundays anthology is a collaboration with my classmate Joe Lambert. He wrote a story and passed it along to me. It's called "Woodworker" - about a son's relationship with his father. Well, the father/son relationship is at the heart of it. There's some really exciting parts of the story that I don't want to give away. I will say though that there's a giant robot, a therapist and, well, woodworking. Fun stuff.

    SB: What's it been like, working on comics in such a large format after essentially doing mini-comics for a year? How have you approached working with the larger canvas?

    ALEX: Working with the larger page is a lot of fun. There's just so much possibility in the space and the connections you can make between panels and in the sequence of the panels across the page. I'm not sure how differently I approach it than doing minis. There's definitely a lot more I can think about and I play with... I guess the biggest difference that I can articulate is that with the larger page, I tend to think of an entire page as an almost self contained unit that have to then be considered inside another unit and so on and so forth. Working on a longer story on a larger format really starts to feel almost like one of those Russian nesting dolls. With minis, I think I would consider it more a series of dolls the same size all lined up. Oh Jeez, that sounds so idiotic... but well, I've been going on a very little sleep these past couple of days preparing for MoCCA and can't think of another way to explain it. And, to be completely honest, I kind of like the comparison.

    Center for Cartoon Studies assignment: "Untitled," page one, written by David Giarratana, Art by Alex Joon Kim, March 2007

    SB: I look forward to seeing it! Let’s back up a bit -- what comics had you completed between Totem and all this new work?

    ALEX: Well, let's see. After Totem I did a mini for SPX '06 called Meerkats Among Us -- it's an accordian format mini with a continuous drawing of a strange landscape type thing that turns into a boat with two meerkats walking along talking about life and death and obituaries and apples. I've also worked on an earlier version of The Bird and The Bear and Double Insecurity, which is a comic that loops back on itself. It's difficult to describe. Let's see... the comic is really two short narratives on a person losing his identity. As you get to the end of one narrative, the comic (and how its bound) takes you to the beginning of the other narrative. As you get to the end of that, the binding again takes you to the beginning of the first story. Does that make sense? I guess you have to see it to believe it.

    And, I helped put together an anthology called Bowler Hat, Bear and Cigarette Fun Fun -- an anthology in which each story had to contain a bowler hat, bear and cigarette in some form. I did two stories for that: "Lament of the Honest Man" and "First Smoke"; the anthology was great fun to work on and to put together.

    SB: You’ve also been doing some amazing silkscreen prints/posters for bands. How long have you been doing these, who are these bands, man, and what are some of your favorite images from this body of work?

    ALEX: Thanks, Steve! I started doing them in '06. That year, with my tax
    return, I bought the basic things you need to silkscreen. I would do them in my small Brooklyn studio apartment, on my kitchen table... my sink was the spray out booth and whatever available floor space was the drying rack. I remember them days fondly.

    The bands are great. There's Antler! who I've been doing fliers and posters for since '06 and there's Killing Phantoms, who I've been doing posters for this year. Both bands are from and play in New York City. The connection between them, and my connection to them, is John Alber -- drummer for both, my college classmate/roommate for a couple of years and an all around great guy and good friend.

    Working on the posters is a strange form of lively meditation for me, if that makes any sense.

    Here are links to the bands
  • Antler!
  • and Killing Phantoms.

  • Check them out... but only if you're prepared to rock.

    SB: You've evolved a unique approach to fusing text and imagery in your comics. What cartoonists do you look to for inspiration, or are you drawing from (pun intended) fine art wellsprings?

    ALEX: Ha. Well, that might be a hard question to answer. As is often the case, I have a hard time really knowing where I'm pulling from or riffing on. Like I said before, I didn't really get interested in comics again until after college, so I guess I would say, at this point, I'm more influenced by the fine arts and architecture. And it might be architecture more than anything -- you have to remember, between work and school, I was immersed in architecture for the nine years before coming here.

    SB: Yes, it’s meant you’ve evolved something quite unique; I’ve never seen comics like yours, it’s really marvelous work --

    ALEX: I know it might sound peculiar, but I find you can translate architectural space into the space of a comics page in fascinating ways and text is all a part of that. Does that sound remotely not like bullshit? I don't know, maybe this is yet another example of the trauma inflicted by architecture school. I mean trauma in a good way.

    And you're right, there's a lot from fine art and graphic design that I find I'm always looking at. Also looking at different types of maps and charts is helpful and I literally cannot stop (looking at them).

    The Alex That Wouldn't Die: More of Alex's anatomical peculiarities, photo by Joe Lambert

    Anyhow, that's really my way of saying that I'm not certain where things are coming from exactly and that everything is a big mystery to me. Often times, I feel like I wadding through the recesses of my brain hoping there's something in there worth being inspired by... and I'm often surprised with what comes out. It's also a lot of experimentation on my part. For all the things that see the light of day, there are probably, like, eight (at least!) experiments that are failures and that I hide in the darkest corner to be found.

    SB: In terms of that experimentation, what parameters do you set for yourself for determining a successful experiment vs. something to 'tank' and hide?

    ALEX: Well, I'm not sure that I have any universal parameters or limits for what I think is successful. Of course I'll always go into something with my own expectations and intentions but whether or not they're met doesn't always determine if I throw them out or not. If I think whatever's been done goes beyond my intentions in a way that I hadn't expected, I tend to keep it... or keep it around for a little while until I can look at it again. What happens most of the time is that I'll look at something I've done and maybe like the idea but not the execution. In which case I throw it out and live in my own personal world of shame for a time.

    It seems that I'm saying that If I like something I'll consider it a success and if not I'll hide it. I guess that's really what it comes down to, Steve. Nothing more to it... except that sometimes, if I can't decide, I'll ask one of my esteemed classmates or professors here at CCS for advice. I've found them (you) to be very helpful and I've learned a lot and have been exposed to a lot by just being around them (you).

    The Bird and the Bear, page 14 of the origin story (2007)

    SB: Let's expand on that fusion of architectural space and the comics page. Do you feel any special affinity for Chris Ware's work in that regard?

    ALEX: Chris Ware's work just really does it for me! I love it, literally can't get enough of it. I think he works with the page so effectively and ingeniously. It's really inspiring.

    For me, the translation is somewhat mystical. There isn't any sort of one to one way of relating the two. Or if there is, I like to think that it's more complicated than it really is and am in denial. Or, OK, OK, maybe it is really sometimes just formal and about what I like to read as space or void on a page and how all of those are composed is something I can also think about architecturally... Does that make sense?

    Archigram art: the amazing conjunction of Silver Age comics, fanzines, Pop Art, British architecture and '60s counterculture, founded in London in 1961; this cover adopts Carmine Infantino/Murphy Anderson/Adam Strange Silver Age imagery a'la Roy Lichtenstein, all to Archigram's own unique goals...

    SB: It does to me! Which leads me to -- with your CCS 'Survey of the Drawn Story' presentation, you introduced us to something that was completely new to me, a group of architects from the '60s who used the fanzine format and comics to articulate and showcase their radical concepts.

    ALEX: Archigram was a group of young architects (Peter Cook, Michael Webb, Ron Herron, Warren Chalk, Dennis Crompton and David Greene) in London that formed in the '60's and that produced a journal/zine/broadsheet of the same name in the '60's and early '70's. The name is a combo of the words architecture and telegram. Part of their 'goal' was to get their ideas into the world and public as quickly as possible, hence the name. They did some really radical projects and created some of the most beautifully inspiring drawings I've seen. They didn't have a building or project built as a group, so their world and work really exists in the drawings and zine (though they did have an exhibition of their stuff that they also designed which I guess is something that was built and looks like it was really a world, or the world, that they thought could/should be).

    A lot of what they did was a commentary on contemporary culture and a fight against what architecture and the culture around it was in England at the time. They were very influenced by technology, pop culture, consumerism, etc... and you can see all of that integrated into their work. One project, "Walking City" by Ron Herron, is a group of enormous robots that is actually a city that can continuous roam around the world. An entire city of nomads! Their work also extends to all scales. "Suitsaloon" by Michael Webb is an one person suit that and inflate to become a comfortable 'living pod'... two people can attach their suitsaloons and have a shared, bigger, space.

  • Archigram Instant City: for a closer look, click on this link to the image source --
  • and here's where you can do the same with Rob Herron's Walking City design concept.

  • My affinity for them is also somewhat personal. Michael Webb was one of my professors in undergrad and one of the best lectures I've attended was given by Peter Cook. Michael Webb was a great teacher and I really enjoyed my class with him (though I don't think he'd share that sentiment (sorry Prof. Webb!) as I discovered the joys of having an income that semester and was not in studio as often as I should have been). And Peter Cook started off his lecture (to a group of mostly young architecture students) by saying something like "Architecture is a load of bullshit. Your average person will not walk down the street and care about slab thicknesses." Which what I think he was saying was that architecture should be, well... fun. This was something that, for a person who never saw the 'fun' and 'play' that could be had with his school projects, was really good to hear.

    I'm not sure how much I should get into it here... Partly cause there's a whole lot of material that I could go into but mostly cause I'll probably get a lot wrong and piss a lot of people (architects) off. I would encourage everyone to look at their projects and read up on them. Their take on architecture is really unique, often copied and just a joy to look at.

    SB: As is your own work, Alex. Thanks, you’ve opened our eyes to all kinds of amazing new stuff -- well, new to me, anyway. It’s been great talking to you!

    Per usual, you can
  • purchase copies of Alex's work online at I Know Joe Kimpel,
  • and his comics, minicomics and silkscreen posters -- all signed and priced to sell -- are always on sale in Quechee Gorge Village's Antiques Mall, at the CCS/SpiderBaby Grafix booth (dealer #653).

  • If you're looking to enjoy more online time with Alex, here's the link to his blog, "Drawing Time with Alex & Kim," chock full of more wit, art, links, cartooning and insights.

  • There's even more of Alex's amazing art showcased here, too; check 'em both out.

  • I also want to follow up on Alex's discussion of Archigram with a couple of links:

  • This excellent Archigram resource -- packed with links to articles, images, videos, books and more -- at the Library and Archive site of the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art;
  • and here's a one-stop, one-click overview of the available books on Archigram.

  • Coming up: It's a full week of CCS/MoCCA interviews ahead, so come on back, y'hear?

    A personal grace note: it was one year ago this weekend that Marge and I took our first (and to date only) hot-air balloon ride! The Quechee Balloon Festival is winding up today, here's hoping they have sweet weather, though it's looking a bit grim this AM.

    As I drove to CCS last night at dusk to hang for a bit with grads Andrew Arnold (up from NYC), Adam Staffaroni, Emily Wieja and others, a bright yellow hot-air balloon was suspended over the Quechee side of White River Junction, still seeking a place to set down. Ah, memories.

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