The Rumpus Interview with Tom Kaczynski

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A visitor to Tom Kaczynski’s Minneapolis home could be forgiven for expecting stockpiled batteries, a wall of canned goods, or other staples of the doomsday prepper’s inventory. The comics that compose Beta Testing the Apocalypse, out this month from Fantagraphics, are linked by themes of alienation and societal overreach, as well as the threat—or implicit promise—of impending disaster. And so it’s an obvious irony, but one that bears mentioning, that numerous well-stocked bookshelves and a scattering of coffee mugs are what actually fill Kaczynski’s living room, while an endlessly affectionate golden retriever rolls around the hardwood floor. The cozy arrangement might be understood as a benefit of dog ownership, or evidence that running a micro press—Kaczynski runs Uncivilized Books, publisher of Gabrielle Bell’s acclaimed 2012 collection The Voyeurs, from a home office on the house’s top floor—leaves little time to gear up for the End of Days, were Kaczynski also not welcoming, generous with his time, and open about his process and ambitions.

For these reasons alone, a visitor could probably guess that he is not a native Minnesotan.

Kaczynski was born in communist Poland, but the shadow of a British author looms conspicuously over his work: J.G. Ballard. As with Ballard, Kaczynski’s stories are fringe science-fiction narratives about base yearnings, otherness, and collapse, captured with stark monochrome palettes and spindly line work. In “Phase Transition,” a shut-in’s busted air conditioner inspires him to cast off his civilized shell. In “Million Year Boom,” a freelance designer helps engineer the creation myth of a global conglomerate and discovers the newest iteration of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones. And in “Cozy Apocalypse,” a couple attempts to disaster-proof its marriage, while markets crash and floods fill the suburbs.

These stories, and the nine others that complete Beta Testing, are the result of more than six years of work. They’re informed by Kaczynski’s time in Poland, then Germany, and then the United States, from the Twin Cities to New York and back again. Our conversation started at the beginning, and with the inevitable: cheap genre comics.

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The Rumpus: You grew up with Polish sci-fi comics, as opposed to Marvel and DC books. Were comics easy to come by when you were a kid?

Tom Kaczynski: They were pretty widely available. Not in the way of American comics—you have these series that go on and on. It was more European-style: albums that would come out every now and then. There was a magazine called Fantastyka. It was a melding of [European comics anthology] Heavy Metal and a sci-fi or pulp magazine, because it had comics, but it also had short stories, serialized novels and things like that. And that had one of my favorite comics, Funky Kovol, a crazy science-fiction romp.

Rumpus: Did you gravitate toward sci-fi, or was that the dominant genre in Poland?

Kaczynski: Any genre you can think of over here, they had an equivalent over there. So if you had a policeman, he was a Communist Party member policeman, sometimes fighting capitalist criminals.

Rumpus: Were Western comics available at all?

Kaczynski: Not too many of them. Mostly other European comics. Like Thorgal, for example, which is a Viking comic—comes out of Belgium, but it’s drawn by a Polish artist, Grzegorz Rosiński. His work was really popular, partly because he was Polish. But there were also funny animal-type books; Asterix and Obelix; a French book called Kajko i Kokosz, which was this little Slavic village being attacked by Germanic tribes—pretty funny and weird.

Rumpus: Are many of these available in English? Or any kind of archival format?

Kaczynski: Not that I’m aware of. I’d love to bring some of the stuff over, now that I’m a publisher, but I don’t think any of it has made it over yet. Thorgal has, but that’s Belgian, so it has had Western exposure for a while. But not many things specifically Polish.

Rumpus: And what are the first comics from the United States you remember reading?

Kaczynski: There was an English-language library in Poland catering to people who were learning English, and they had one volume—a reprint volume, and I’m sure it must have been a British volume—of a Fantastic Four comic that had Spider-Man in it. It’s kind of hazy. I didn’t really see serialized American comics until I moved to Germany, where they were reprinted as books or sometimes again as pamphlets.

Rumpus: By the time you arrived in the United States, did you have an American genre comics phase, or were you deep into Dan Clowes—

Kaczynski: No, I went through [that phase]. I got into X-Men in Germany, and Spider-Man. I was reading Conan the Barbarian for a while, too. So when I moved over here, I was seeking out those comics. And when I realized there was a whole subsection of stores—comic book stores—there was no going back. This would have been late ’80s, early ’90s.

Rumpus: Were you making comics in any capacity?

Kaczynski: Once I started drawing comics, when I was eight- or ten-years-old, I just continued. Off and on, but I was always drawing something. I had my own characters, had my own super teams. I’d draw them, file them away.

Rumpus: Did you have a formal art education?

Kaczynski: Yeah. After high school, I went to college [at the University of Minnesota], and went into architecture. That was a pragmatic major if you were an artist. But at the same time, I was basically double-majoring with art, taking classes at the art department. But I feel like my art school experience is very similar to Art School Confidential, Dan Clowes’s comic. Architecture felt like it was a lot more useful for drawing, for conceptualizing the world, than my art education was.

Rumpus: When was your introduction to J.G. Ballard in all this?

Kaczynski: Ballard happened much later. I’d seen some of Ballard’s work in high school, mainly because I was interested in RE/Search publications. RE/Search was publishing these books on so-called industrial culture—books on Throbbing Gristle, William S. Burroughs, people like that. And they were also super into J.G. Ballard, and the book that they were publishing was The Atrocity Exhibition—which actually had amazing illustrations by Phoebe Gloeckner, who’s also a cartoonist. But these were her medical illustrations, much different from her comics work. I think, for a long time, she was a medical illustrator, and they used her to illustrate Atrocity Exhibition. That’s a very difficult book. It’s very abstract, chopped up, and there’s a lot of found writing from a variety of scientific magazines. He’s kind of mashing up plastic surgery descriptions with political figures, things like that—it was a difficult read for someone at that age. It was very evocative, but I don’t think I was getting it. So I just assumed all his writing was like this: Naked Lunch-style…[similar to] all these things that I liked, but not anything that you could read in a sustained way without feeling overwhelmed.

So anyway, eventually I got back into Ballard—much more recently—and the book that I read was Running Wild. Which I didn’t like, but there was something about it…I didn’t like the book itself, but I liked something in the book. Enough that I picked up other stuff, and High Rise was one of the books that I picked up soon after that. And A Drowning World, and Crash. Concrete Island—all that stuff from his science-fiction era. And I just loved it, couldn’t get enough of it. I’ve pretty much read everything he’s written at this point. That just happened to be around the time I was drawing my pieces for [Fantagraphics serial anthology] Mome, and it ended up being very influential.

Rumpus: You and Ballard were both transported from one culture to another while fairly young, and I think for a lot of people, that turns them into observers of the world early on, examining structure and difference. Is that fair to say in your case?

Kaczynski: Yeah, I would say so. In my own experience, having lived in Germany and the U.S., you have to learn the local customs, translate that somehow into your own experience. Absorb it, try to understand it. Things like baseball, which I don’t think I’ll ever understand.

Rumpus: That’s not the first time I’ve heard someone not born in the States say that about baseball. It seems like baseball in particular is inscrutable to people.

Kaczynski: It’s just such a different game.

Rumpus: One line that struck me from the first story in Beta Testing, “100,000 Miles,” was, “Each complex is a scale model of some future megalopolis,” and throughout the book we see instances of an object or system standing in for an even larger system—worlds upon worlds of simulacra. Do you believe in any sort of binary between authentic and inauthentic modes of experience? A way of living humans once had that we’ve been separated from?

Kaczynski: I would agree with that in the sense that we lived in certain environments, and we’re separated from that. But even back then, we were still remaking whatever environments we were in to suit our needs, whatever those needs were. The word authentic is almost a negative term for me. Everything is a construct. Either everything is authentic or nothing is authentic, and I don’t know which one it is, but it doesn’t bother me one way or the other, you know? So I don’t see it as a binary; I see it as the way things are. I don’t think we’re in a place where we’re removed from some authentic experience, that we’ll never get back to, that we’ve lost, and that we’ll pay for it. We may pay for it anyway. If you look at archeology, you see all sorts of examples of humans destroying their environments and moving on. I don’t think it’s anything new—just the scale is different.

Rumpus: Over-farming is not unique to the twentieth or twenty-first century.

Kaczynski: Yeah, exactly. We’re just losing ground.

Rumpus: Speaking of places you can’t get back to, some of the pieces in Beta Testing are five or six years old now, and I wanted to know if you relate better to the newer pieces in the book than the older ones.

Kaczynski: I tend to dislike everything new that I’ve done. There’s always some kind of nagging feeling that I’ve missed something. For whatever reason, the newer work is always mildly incomprehensible to me. But after a certain period of time passes, I can look back at the stuff and say, “Oh, I can live with that. That’s not a bad story.” I mean, they are artifacts of their time, too. I’d have done things differently now, but you just have to live with the fact that you produce these artifacts and they become older and older, and your relationship with them changes. And that’s fine.

Rumpus: If you can have an anthropological relationship with your own work, that’s probably good for your mental health.

Kaczynski: Yeah. You produce these artifacts, and they go out into the world, and you don’t have to worry about them anymore. Occasionally you can mine them for something else.

Rumpus: “Phase Transition” is one of the instances in the book in which readers get a character with something primal inside of him, which is a motif you’ve almost made into your brand now with Uncivilized Books. Are you able to trace back your preoccupation with the primitive to any particular moments or texts?

Kaczynski: I don’t know. Ballard figures in, but I think it comes before that. I mentioned earlier that I was into Conan the Barbarian, and I liked Tarzan—the savage man in the civilized world, or vice versa. The tension going on.

One thing that I subscribe to in a weird way is, there’s a thing about high technology: it turns us into more primitive thinkers. Part of it is the magic nature of new technology. Even with a car, you can learn how to fix it—how to change the oil, how to maintain it. With a computer, it’s really a mysterious box. The components are so tiny—you can maybe swap them out, and that’s as close as you can get. You can’t really get to the underlying technology. Technology, as it gets miniaturized and more advanced, actually creates more magical thinking in us—we speak to our machines as if they were idols.

That’s part of the motivation. Technology that brings out more primitive ways of thinking. That’s partly what “Phase Transition” was about, partly what “Million Year Boom” was about. They were conceived around the same time.

Rumpus: It’s interesting that you emphasize technology, because I walked away from “Million Year Boom” wondering whether or not you believed in a connection between the making of art and these buried impulses. Which might sound obvious, but I think creating something is often equal parts raw expression, calculation, attention to detail—these things that are antithetical to the idea of the primal impulse.

Kaczynski: I’m not a primal type of artist. There’s all kinds of lore about what an artist is, how an artist creates art, how they come to their ideas. There’s this primal-urge theory, and then there’s this more academic [path], “You do these things and then you’re good at it.” For me, being a cartoonist is more about storytelling than about the art. I usually try to make my art as subservient to the story as possible.

Rumpus: Meaning that narrative coherence takes primacy? Clarity of storytelling?

Kaczynski: Yeah. Just the ability to tell a story, but also, I don’t feel like as much of a visual artist…I rarely have the urge to draw something. It needs to have some story behind it, even if it’s a single image. It needs to be narrative in some way. Any kind of impulse to draw generates from that. Comics to me are a storytelling medium. I’m not so much a formalist, playing with these boxes in random ways, deliberate ways, to break the narrative. In that way, I’m traditional, I guess—just telling stories.

Rumpus: In “The New,” readers get a rare face-punch moment, and a pretty visceral one. Knowing now that you grew up reading Conan, too, have you ever been tempted to do a more action-heavy comic?

Kaczynski: This may change with my work in the future, but I’m not as interested in violence…personal violence. Whereas obviously in some of my stories there’s a general psychic violence going on. But I’m not so interested in the visceral punch, the kick, hand-to-hand combat, someone getting shot, or whatever. I tend not to gravitate toward criminal stories. My girlfriend likes detective fiction, noir fiction, and I tend not to be interested in that. Partly because it is all about this raw, personal violence. Maybe there’s some aversion I should be looking into.

Rumpus: Is there anything you, as a reader, get out of Johnny Ryan’s Prison Pit, some of the more violent indie or art comics?

Kaczynski: Yeah, there’s a visceral kick you get out of that. Prison Pit, it’s like, what is he going to come up with next? A kind of one-upmanship. You’re looking for the next panel to really blow you away. But at the same time, there’s a deadening effect that happens. I used to be into horror movies, violent movies, and after a while you become numb to that. Maybe that’s why I’m not that interested in violence in my own stories. I just stopped seeing that kind of material at some point. But I do admire Johnny Ryan’s comics. And I like Johnny Negron. He’s done some weird, violent, manga-inflected stuff recently. They’re almost like formalist exercises with violence as the subject matter.

I’m really drawn to Yuichi Yokoyama’s work. He’s a Japanese cartoonist. Basically nothing happens from a narrative point of view—it’s just sequence after sequence after sequence of something. One book is called Travel and it’s just these guys walking from train car to train car. You see the differences in the passing landscapes; you see different lighting as the time of day changes. But it’s basically just a walk through a train. And I feel like [the comics of Ryan or Negron] are very similar—they’re just using violence. I guess I’m just more interested in people walking through train cars than people punching each other.

Rumpus: The manga market might be more accommodating of formal exercises that aren’t about violence. I haven’t read basketball manga, for instance, but that it exists at all is amazing to me as an American comics reader.

Kaczynski: And there’s whole strips—Yokoyama again—of, you know, a character putting a coin into a vending machine. You see the process of something coming out of a vending machine.

Rumpus: “Cozy Apocalypse” from Beta Testing engages with masculinity, and “masculinity in crisis,” more overtly than your other works, and I was wondering if masculinity was the starting point of that story—something you knew you wanted to tackle—or if it was something you found yourself tackling as you went.

Kaczynski: It was not the starting point, but it kind of became [the focal point]. Like, I didn’t really realize what I was writing until I was deeply into it. The story’s about a pending apocalypse, but there’s also these weird marital things going on. And I find that those two things can be intertwined: the twilight of masculinity and this apocalyptic imagining of our world falling apart. I think those thing must be unconsciously connected in the story. Now that you mention it, I’m like, “Oh yeah, duh,” but that wasn’t my primary exploration.

Rumpus: And I’m sure there are things at, as a reader, I look for and project.

Kaczynski: No, it’s good. Because most people, when they talk about that story, they talk about the apocalypse part of it. You’ve pulled out something else…which seems obvious in retrospect.

Rumpus: In terms of process, you talked about the importance of clarity in your images, that they serve story. Do you find yourself writing captions first? Do your stories all start the same way.

Kaczynski: No, I have a pretty convoluted process. I’ve written comics in many different ways. Anywhere from writing a script, then drawing it, inking it; all the way to drawing sequences and then coming up with what’s going to happen in those sequences later. So a lot of times, the impetus for a story is a two-page sequence that I have in my head. A character is going from one point to another, and I want to show that. What’s happening during that time comes later. I figure that out at some point. Overall, I’ve written captions before, but mostly they happen after I’ve drawn something.

Rumpus: Much of Beta Testing features characters who have been numbed, who live in these highly corporatized capitalist prisons, basically. Did you have reservations about engaging in the marketplace as a publisher when you started Uncivilized, meeting capitalism on its own terms in a very direct way?

Kaczynski: That’s a difficult question to answer. One of the problems with capitalism—

Rumpus: And I ask it understanding that every one of us in the United States is a part of the process, is implicated in the excesses.

Kaczynski: Absolutely. My problem with capitalism as its defined is that it’s impossible to get out of. And that’s one of the problems with critiques of capitalism. It’s so completely consuming that you can’t really think your way out of it. Which is something I’ve thought in the past. That we’re doomed, trapped in this giant organism, and no matter how much you try to think your way out of it, you’re always going to be in it. You either believe that, and it’s a self-defeating thing, or you believe it’s possible to alter it in some ways, or that there is an outside.

Rumpus: Do you consider your work to be inherently pessimistic?

Kaczynski: That’s another difficult question. Because something I’m really fascinated by right now is utopias. Utopian thinking, coming up with alternative worlds where things work differently. I have two different tracts in how I work. Most of the Mome work is fiction—just straightforward fiction. As a writer, I’ll take certain positions that I don’t necessarily believe, but I will take them to whatever natural ending point I think they have. But I also do more essay-type comics. I don’t now if you’ve seen my Trans mini-comics, which are much more essay-like, where I can examine these ideas more directly rather than through fictional characters.

I feel like utopia, the idea of overcoming these giant societal structures, is present even in the very pessimistic work. There’s something there—an adjustment that happens [to the characters]. And to us it may look monstrous, but I don’t know if it would look monstrous to the characters themselves.

Rumpus: The character in “Phase Transition” seems to find some sort of peace or balance.

Kaczynski: Right. So I think there’s some kind of underlying optimism. But sometimes you have to dig deep.

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First panel from “Cozy Apocalypse,” second panel from “Phase Transition,” third panel from “The New,” and “Noise: A History” in full, all featured in Beta Testing The Apocalypse, © 2012 by Tom Kaczynski.

Click here to read the first three pages of “Million Year Boom,” one of the stories featured in Tom Kaczynski’s new collection, Beta Testing the Apocalypse.


Greg Hunter is an editor from the Twin Cities. He concept-tweets in obscurity as @Dialogue_Log. More from this author →