Yesterday, I began the first of a two part interview with Rob Walton, creator of the recently completed graphic novel, Ragmop. Greg Smith, whose research interest extend from cognitive theory of emotion to the translation of The Maxx for television, conducted this interview. Smith is the author of a great forthcoming book on Ally McBeal and the aesthetics of serial television, which is coming out later this year. Yesterday, Smith and Walton took us deep into the political and economic theories behind the book. Today, they explore some of the influences — from Samuel Beckett to Jack Kirby — that shaped this idiosyncratic story.
Many of you, of course, live in areas where the comic book shops are sub par and don’t stock Walton’s Ragmop. I should note that the book is of course also available from Amazon and other online bookdealers.
Lest people think that Ragmop is an economic treatise, we should point out that it’s incredibly funny too. The rhythm of the jokes feels a lot like the jokes in classic animation. What did you learn about joke structure from animation?
Drawing storyboards for ten years definitely helped refine my comic timing as well as what I absorbed as a kid watching Monty Python, Bugs Bunny, the Marx Brothers, and reading MAD Magazine. Animation also taught me how to use “beats”. Those are moments of silence when a character suddenly clues into something, like when the Tetragrammaton realizes that there are dinosaurs in Heaven (page 241) or Alice’s spit-take on page 178 (you don’t see too many spit-takes in comics, do you?). Ragmop appropriates all of this material, which originates for our purposes with Vaudeville and Silent Film comedy. It was amazing to be able to distill eighty years of comedy culture in a comic like Ragmop. I don’t think it could have been done any other way. It was a cartoon comedy or nothing. I was dealing with such grand themes and extreme viewpoints that it never once occurred to me that this would be anything other than a comedy.
Aside from animation I did read up on the history of comedy going back to the Greeks. I was happy to learn that what I was doing in Ragmop was nothing more than what was done at the original festivals, where ancient comedians would parody and lampoon the figures of establishment in their day. That’s where comedy seemed to begin. It’s also why it has always been reviled and suppressed over the centuries by the various targets of its humor.
I’d like to hear you pick an influence and talk to me about how you worked that through your comic.
I suppose I could talk about two influences, one from stage–Peter Barnes–and one from television–Monty Python. I don’t think it’s surprising that they’re both British. British stage and comedy had an enormous influence on me as a teenager. Plays like Marat/Sade and The Ruling Class blew my mind, man, as they tackled subjects that seemed to me to be reserved for university lecture halls. Even Waiting for Godot and Endgame by little Sammy Beckett showed that comedy could convey big ideas and do so in a way drama could not touch. Monty Python showed me that comedy could be equally intelligent and downright silly at the same time. The Life of Brian exposes the absurdities of both religious institutions and revolutionary movements while making us laugh hysterically.
Barnes’ The Ruling Class is a savage black comedy that says that given the choice society would choose hate and fear over love and compassion by choosing Jack the Ripper rather than Jesus Christ to rule us. His play Red Noses is a heartbreaking comedy about bringing comfort to people’s lives through laughter in a world beset by war and plague and religious extremism. Meanwhile Chuck Jones had made cartoons about bullfighting, Opera, and transvestism. Bob Clampett had made his cartoon masterpiece Beanie & Cecil, and Jay Ward had brought new literary madness and a beat sensibility to my youthful generation with Rocky & Bullwinkle. MAD Magazine would tackle anything. MAD‘s influence is keenly felt throughout Ragmop from the front cover aping Jack Davis to the musical numbers that parody The Music Man. So is it any wonder that when I came to start drawing Ragmop it all came pouring out of me?
I’ll make a shameful confession: I’ve never liked Jack Kirby. I grew up as a DC guy, and so when I finally read the great Kirby arcs as an adult, it all seems so overblown, the mythic stuff seems silly to me. And yet I like the Kirby stuff in Ragmop for some reason. Can you help me like Kirby?
I didn’t start reading Kirby myself until his return to DC in 1970 or so. My primary reading focus was Spider-man, and I didn’t start reading Kirby’s Fantastic Four until it was reprinted in World’s Greatest. I also caught up on Spidey through the reprints in Marvel Tales. Included in Marvel Tales was Kirby’s Thor. I loved Thor. It was pure science fiction. It was totally groovy, especially inked by Chic Stone. The first Kirby Fantastic Four I read in reprint was “The Gentleman’s Name is Gorgan” (FF #44). I was knocked off my socks. FF’s # 55, 57, and 63 remain some of my favorite single issues of all time. I never tire of re-reading them.
The thing about Kirby (no pun intended) is that there were no limits to his imagination. Literally. If Marvel Comics is the House of Ideas, then it was the house that Jack built on the foundation of his ideas. The High Evolutionary, The Negative Zone, Galactus, the Silver Surfer: these were characters and concepts that inspired a generation of new creators. Jack’s mind was so beyond anyone else’s that few creators have been able to continue his creations with any satisfactory success. Both DC and Marvel have failed in my opinion to cope with the themes raised in The New Gods and The Eternals respectively. The New Gods in particular was Jack’s attempt to use comics to achieve literary greatness. Unfortunately his writing skills were never equal to his ability to conceptualize, and his work is constantly marred by cornball dialogue.
Even so, Jack had something serious to say about religion (Judaism), technology, war, and totalitarianism. “The Pact” (New Gods #7) and “Himon” (Mister Miracle #9) were exceptions. In these two issues Kirby found his muse and wrote movingly about war, the freedom of the individual, and parentage. Only the writing of Alan Moore has equaled Jack’s accomplishment on these two books as far as I’m concerned. For me, these are the two greatest single mainstream comics ever produced.
It wasn’t to last, of course, but that was all right. There was plenty of Kirby to go around. Kamandi, the Demon, OMAC, The Losers, The Eternals, and even Devil Dinosaur proved that Kirby could take even the lamest of concepts and turn them into pure entertainment while lacing them with ideas that are still fueling comics to this very day. It’s ironic that Kirby’s OMAC (“Are you ready for the world that’s coming?”) is far more prevalent for us today than DC’s current re-imagining of the character.
Captain Victory was one of the last books Kirby produced. Although his art was deteriorating by this time, his mind wasn’t. Captain Victory harkened back to the themes of The New Gods and in a way brought them to some resolution. His trilogy of “Big Ugly” “The Lost Ranger” and “Gangs of Space” (issues 11- 13) proved that when it came to themes of war and sacrifice Kirby still had it in him to surprise, shock, and move this university educated reader. I proudly own the page where Captain Victory discovers the corpse of Alaria on the battlefield in issue 13. I find it profoundly moving as the last scene in the long drama that concludes his origin story, turning the boy into a man, and the soldier into a leader: “Triumph and loss too elusive to measure–and the burden of the strong.”
Kirby showed me that all of time and space were open to me as a cartoonist, and I took that to heart in Ragmop. I never would have had my characters enter what I call “the Punyverse” had Kirby not first shown me worlds within worlds. The O-ring is sister to Kirby’s Cosmic Cube. Kirby’s kickboxing Devil Dinosaur is ancestor to my own trio of knuckle-headed dinos. Would I be waging a war in Heaven had I not read the mighty Thor? ‘Fraid not.
Kirby saw it all first. Kirby paved the way and opened every door for every future writer and artist of comics. I can appreciate that Kirby is of his time and not to everyone’s taste, given how the medium has evolved since the advent of Frank Miller, Chris Claremont, and Alan Moore in the early 1980′s. But on the other hand, his time was so far ahead of us it could be decades still before we catch up to, let alone fully comprehend and appreciate, his massive perspective.
So what’s the meaning of the title Ragmop?
Why Ragmop? At the time I was developing the story, I had no title. That was the last thing that came to me. This was in 1993-94. Seth was publishing Palookaville, Chester Brown, Yummy Fur and Joe Matt, Peep Show. I liked those titles because they conveyed the artists’ personalities while providing them with broad canvas to do a variety of stories. My wife Lucy and friend Mark Askwith and I all brainstormed on a title that could encompass the breadth of the comedy I was attempting to do. At the eleventh hour I remembered Beanie & Cecil. It probably happened accidentally as I was humming “Ragmop” to myself. Eureka! That became the title. It was jazzy. It was about animation and kooky, smart humor. It conveyed my personality. It was a title that said: “Anything goes.”