While scanning Facebook just over two years ago, I came across an update by comics industry legend Stephen Bissette that stopped me in my tracks. It was an eye-popping image of a hulking, helmeted barbarian wielding multiple bladed weapons with which he was expertly vivisecting a gnarly horde of subhuman riff-raff. A scantily clad vixen, wide-eyed and terrified, surveyed the carnage. It was love at first sight. I needed to know more.
It only took a few clicks to get the basics. The artist was Jason Karns, who’s been self-publishing his unique brand of balls-to-the-wall, blood-dripping-from-the-ceiling comic books for over a decade. After putting out a number of one-off stories in a wide range of genres, he recently decided to publish his work under a single brand name; a title that he felt best expressed his artwork and storytelling: FUKITOR.
Nazi scientists unleashing genetically modified gorilla shock troops on unsuspecting G.I. Joes; cannibal Satanists and zombie royalty sharing a feast of wriggling female flesh; a psychotic, trigger-happy detective leaving bloody piles of collateral damage in his wake; butt-raping Bat-Apes from Pluto… It’s all FUKITOR. And it’s fucking glorious.
Karns is a one-man show. He is FUKITOR’s sole creator, hand-crafting every issue, from the initial plotting all the way down to the trimming and stapling. And he does it all from his small hometown in Illinois, where he daylights as a barkeep. He has toiled anonymously for years, designing the occasional t-shirt, or gig posters for local rock bands, honing his skills and producing beautiful work of rare quality and power, quite content to remain an unknown quantity, obscure even by the dim lights of independent comics publishing… until recently.
In January of 2012, The Comics Journal website published an in-depth interview with Karns conducted by Jim Rugg with an introduction by Benjamin Marra, a very talented indy comics creator in his own right. Their assessment of Karns’ work wasn’t just glowing; it was downright radioactive. Marra described how Karns’ images “had already seared onto my brain”, declaring FUKITOR’s effects as being akin to high-grade narcotics: “the high was instant and heavily satisfying.”
Rugg could only concur, comparing Karns’ work to 70’s grindhouse exploitation trailers and posters, only “unlike those trailers, FUKITOR delivered the goods.” When he took a pile of Karns’ books to an independent comics expo in Pittsburgh and found that nobody knew anything about them, Rugg decided that he “didn’t want to live in a comics world where Karns’ work isn’t widely known and celebrated.”
So Rugg contacted Karns and conducted an exhaustive interview. It’s still available on The Comics Journal’s website, and I urge anyone interested in learning about Karns and his process to check it out. He is remarkably generous with information about his technique and equipment – he inks with a Papermate Flair, letters with a Sharpie Micron, and colors with Prismacolor markers – and his opinions on the current indy comics scene. On that particular score, to call him skeptical is to put it mildly.
At one point, Karns describes his lone foray into the world of comics conventions. It was as a fan, not a participant. “I saw lots of fuckers drawing cutesy, manga looking shit and other stuff that was either just way too pretentious or didn’t deserve to be even given away for free.” He spent most of his time perusing old horror comics, porno mags, and sleazy paperbacks with titles like Violent Stories of Ghetto Sex.
A self-taught artist with a monster obsession, a comics rack addiction, and a sincere love for the kind of sci-fi movies that used to play on Sunday afternoon TV, Karns is the working class product of an all-American Day-Glo 70’s childhood and a hard-rocking, heavy metal 80’s adolescence. He was the kind of kid who was sent to the principal’s office for drawing gruesome cartoons to entertain his classmates; a formative experience for many who eventually go on to work in the field of comics and illustration.
Karns dropped out of high school and immediately went to work, drawing comics for a small but devoted audience on the side. His humble origins and blue-collar lifestyle perhaps help to explain Karns’ diligent work ethic, and his almost allergic aversion to pretentiousness. While the stories he tells can occasionally be laugh-out-loud funny, there’s no sense of ironic detachment in FUKITOR. When Karns says his comics are devoted to “blood, boobs and bad words”, he means it.
Despite eschewing computers when it comes to creating his comics, Karns did hop onto the Internet when it came along. A friend helped him set up a website featuring some of his artwork. That’s when his audience began to grow, which led to Rugg’s Comics Journal interview, which in turn led to even more attention and sales. People were paying attention at last, and reviews began popping up in various online forums.
One of the positive side effects of FUKITOR’s increased exposure was that Karns got on Gary Groth’s radar. The Fantagraphics honcho was so impressed by his work that he decided to make a FUKITOR collection one of the flagship titles for his company’s new “micro” imprint, Fantagraphics Underground, or F.U. Press for short.
F.U. Press has a mandate to publish work “by relatively unknown cartoonists that's innovative, quirky, idiosyncratic, oddball, experimental, or downright crazy” and to “inhabit a space between self-publishing and mass-market publishing” by printing “limited editions (between 100 and 500 copies)”, as well as helping with the marketing, distribution and promotion of said work. In that same press release, FUKITOR is described as residing “uneasily between a straight and satirical response to the violence, xenophobia, and sexual and racial stereotypes found in pop culture.”
In September of 2014, the FUKITOR compilation hit the specialty store shelves. The cover alone was a thing of beauty. Lovingly rendered in the shape of a pentagram encircling a gargantuan bloodshot eyeball, seventy severed hands, seeping gore from every mangled stump, flip seventy defiant middle fingers at the world. Quite an introduction!
Of course, this kind of exposure can be a double-edged sword, and the negative soon followed hot on the heels of the positive.
It all started innocuously enough, and once again, it began at The Comics Journal website. In the August 28, 2013 edition of his New Small Press Comics column, Frank Santoro raved enthusiastically about the latest edition of FUKITOR:
Karns is one of those guys who is almost “too real” to be part of the contemporary comics conversation. Just about everything compared to his work seems “pretentious”. Karns is not trying to do a throwback style or appropriate “bad comics” in order to make some sort of art comic. This is the real deal. This shit is SERIOUS!
The very first comment, by someone calling himself Jacob C., was short and sweet: “Is Fukitor as insanely racist as it looks?” This apparently in reaction to an image of a Middle-Eastern looking terrorist from “Ufukistan” shrieking gibberish.
Santoro replied that FUKITOR was tongue-in-cheek, as if the name of the imaginary nation itself wasn’t sufficient evidence of this. Unfortunately, it was at this point that the discussion became a pathetic game of politically correct “gotcha”, before eventually devolving into one of the most egregious flame-wars in recent online history.
Someone named Greg Fontaine angrily threw Santoro’s original comments – that Karns was “too real”, that this was “the real deal”, that he was “serious” – back in his face, petulantly demanding that he elaborate on his explanation. “How many layers of irony are we supposed to be decoding in reading your review?” Karns came to Santoro’s defense, explaining: “they are CARTOONS. It’s complete fantasy.”
The rest of Karns’ reply, however, was written in haste and not fully thought out, and it showed. This is precisely the kind of red meat that the braying, pseudo-intellectual neckbeards who populate online discussion forums thrive upon. They decided to swoop in en masse and go for the virtual kill, parsing his every word in an effort to expose this horrendous bigot.
One commenter declared that Karns’ “racist looking shit” was evidence of “very scary hatred beneath the surface”. Another commenter (a self-described comics creator) addressed Karns directly, telling him that his work “is built around contempt for others and violent hostility. That’s very sad. You are so small.” This same individual further asserts with hilarious gall that “comics deserves better and better is on its way.” A cursory perusal of this individual’s work provides grounds for an alternative explanation for his snark: professional jealousy.
At some point in all this, Karns’ detractors began declaring FUKITOR’s violence, mayhem, and politically incorrect shenanigans to be “boring”. This would probably have been news to blogger Kim O’Connor, whose seething indignation at FUKITOR’s mere existence was such that she couldn’t bring herself to name it or its creator when writing about them. Declaring this unnamable work a “glorified white supremacist comic”, she informed her readers in frothing tones that: “one of the most respected publishers in comics is about to launch his new imprint with … some of the most racist and misogynistic imagery I have seen anywhere, ever. That he is doing so in the name of a publisher’s obligation to take risks is not just a travesty, it is a crisis.”
Less deranged but perhaps even more annoying was blogger Martin Wisse’s take on the controversy, in a column cleverly called “FUKITOR Can Feck Off”. After climbing on board the FUKITOR-is-boring bandwagon, this chin-stroking Trotskyite offers Karns a helpful story suggestion: “If he really wants to shock and be radical and transgressive, why not have … the heroic defenders of Fukistani values defeating the evil forces of the godless west? Show some gleeful, lovingly dismemberment [sic] of US soldiers while Osama Bin [sic] Laden quips one liners?” In light of his other columns, it seems a fair bet that Wisse would enjoy such a story on all sorts of levels, above and beyond the satirical.
The whole sorry circus perhaps reached its nadir when some of the more hysterical obsessives in this first wave of FUKITOR-hate began chasing down other online articles about Karns and his work, using the comments sections to high-five the like-minded and shame the apostates. One could almost picture them, gathered together in crowds (for protection), their arms outstretched, trembling fingers pointing, faces twisted with rage as their jaws dropped slack and guttural moans formed, then erupted from their gaping mouths, like Donald Sutherland in the final scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), screaming: “FUKITOR IS DOUBLE PLUS UNGOOD RACIST!!!”
Of course, this is not to say that the debate was entirely one-sided. There was a lot of back and forth, with many providing spirited rebuttals in FUKITOR’s defense after Karns wisely withdrew from the fray to quietly fill out the sudden surge of orders being generated by the controversy. Charles Reece wrote a sly and erudite column in which he called FUKITOR “a Feminist Phantasmagoria” in the spirit of Valerie Solanas’ S.C.U.M. manifesto, and compared it favorably to Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. Night Watch Studios declared FUKITOR “not for minors or whiners!” And in what must surely rank as the most “metal” endorsements for a comic book ever, self-declared “Satanic” blogger Mojo gave the book a rhapsodic review and declared Karns to be “some kind of unholy anti-geek!”
However, after multiple negative stories and hundreds of angry comments filled with incredibly heated rhetoric, it was clear that the FUKITOR’s brief honeymoon with the online indy comics crowd was over. So when the time came for The Comics Journal to “officially” review the collected F.U. Press edition, their previous ardor had cooled considerably. After offering some muted praise of Karns’ skill as a draftsman, Greg Hunter concludes that FUKITOR “is a work that, convinced it’s a rebel, behaves like a bully.”
Eventually, Heidi MacDonald published an almost too-tactful, hands-wringing overview of the whole sorry spectacle in her Comics Beat column, which was mostly useful in that it provided a forum for commenter Johnny Mnemonic to write the following:
So a comic that got a few paragraphs in a TCJ article has spawned dozens of comments, several novel-sized blog post responses, and a mea culpa from the article author practically begging not to be excommunicated from the comics scene. You guys still sure that book isn’t subversive?
Let’s allow this keen observation to serve as a fitting segue into the interview portion of this article. I should point out that Jim Rugg’s aforementioned interview with Karns is so good and covers so much ground that writing this article for Comic Bastards occasionally felt like an exercise in redundancy. That’s why I made a conscious effort not to go over similar territory with my own questions, sparing Karns the tedium of having to repeat himself.
With that out of the way, let’s get to the main event. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to meet Jason Karns, the man behind the legend that is FUKITOR!
MARK THIBODEAU: You’ve recently gone from publishing and distributing FUKITOR in small batches from home to having a collection of your work be chosen as a flagship title for the new Fantagraphics Underground imprint. Has this changed the way you approach your work?
JASON KARNS: Not at all. I'm still allowed to produce my own self-published stuff. So, I'm still just slinging out similar garbage. I've been doing the same format for years and I like it.
MT: How did Fantagraphics approach you for this project?
JK: Actually, Jim Rugg was the driving force behind it. He's been a fan for a while and he talked with Gary from Fantagraphics about doing a book. Of course he made sure I was into it also, and I said "sure, why not?" I've been slaving away on my own for years and always thought it would be neat to have a big book, just wasn't into printing that big of a volume by myself.
MT: It must have felt like a vindication of sorts, like your years of hard work have finally started paying off.
JK: It was sort of a vindication I guess, but I've never done this stuff for attention really. It's just fun shit and geared toward a select audience.
MT: What’s the idea behind that cover? And why stop at sixty-seven middle fingers? Why not make it a full sixty-nine?
JK: I wanted it to look like a death metal album cover. You know, the kinda satanic-looking imagery that immediately tells some people that "this is NOT for them". We both miscounted by the way. For the longest time I thought there was 69 hands. I carefully recounted them and discovered there's actually 70. 69 would have been cooler, but oh well.
MT: Your artistic style is so distinctive. Which creators have influenced your artwork and/or your storytelling strategies, if any?
JK: It's really just a mish-mash of tons of comic artists. The ones that grabbed me the most as a kid were Kirby, Steranko, Starlin, Wrightson, Gulacy, both Buscemas, all the E.C. crew of course. There's more but I can't remember them at the moment. I fucking read everything as a kid. My main goal though over the past 10 years was to have my own style. Kirby always stressed that. Don't just draw like someone else. Tweak it and make it YOURS. As far as "storytelling" goes, I don't consider myself a writer. They're just goofy ideas, all humor-based, aimed at excuses for crazy imagery and over-the-top violence. The "stories" are kept pretty thin on purpose. I like having fun with the dialogue and narration, but character development is not something I'm going for. Shit, most of them get killed before that can happen anyway.
MT: I have to ask: Marvel or DC?
JK: I read both, but I was totally a Marvel kid all the way. Their stuff just seemed more tangible to me, more cosmic. Plus, DC was always just a little too silly, lots of characters with capes and names ending in "boy", or "lad". I actually bought some old Justice Leagues recently, just for the Perez art. I tried reading through them, mainly for a nostalgic kick. Man, it was painful. The only flashback I got was remembering that even as a kid I thought these were stupid.
MT: What were your absolute favorite comics growing up?
JK: My absolute favorite comic growing up was Conan. I devoured all of those, including the black-n-white magazine and the novels. I still read those.
MT: You are notoriously skeptical about the current state of comics. Are there any current creators whose work you find worthwhile?
JK: Nah, I just don't really pay that much attention. There's tons of talent out there. I notice some stuff here and there. But I also notice other stuff that's boring, lame, and pretentious. I see some people getting acclaim that can't even draw worth a shit. But that's the way it goes. I really don't give a shit either way. I make mine for myself first, then other like-minded people come around and that's good enough for me. I still buy older comics because I still dig them. Keeping up with all the stuff out there now is not within my realm of patience. I know I'm probably missing out on some cool stuff, but I'll catch up eventually. Or not. I'm a dick.
MT: Your work is often compared to EC horror comics. Those comics often ended with a moral point—however twisted. Do you consider any of your work to have a deeper point, or message?
JK: Fuck, I hope not. People are going to read stuff into it, but I know for a fact that when I'm making them I'm only going for laughs and gross imagery. The only "message" I see is "turn your brain off for a few minutes, escape, and laugh, fucker." Everyone that likes them tends to keep them next to the toilet, and that's precisely where they belong.
MT: You have recently cited S. Clay Wilson and Joe Coleman as inspirations. Can you elaborate on how they’ve influenced your work?
JK: Basically, they were both a huge kick in my ass when I really needed it. It was the mid 90s and I was getting a little disenchanted with my art and what I wanted to do with it. I was seriously considering trying to draw like some current comic artists and try and get a job in the business. I probably would have failed, but my head was definitely not going in the right direction regardless. Then I got my hands on some of Wilson's stuff and was simply reminded that I didn't have to do cheesy shit that I didn't enjoy doing. Vulgarity with tits and dicks flying around everywhere… thin plots… what a release, I thought. Just let the sleaze out. Fuck what anybody thinks. And around the same time a good friend let me borrow a book of Coleman's art and that was the final zap I needed. His balls-out approach to grit and detail blew me away. I also realized at the same time that this meant I was destined to work odd 9-to-5 jobs for the rest of my life. I consciously made that decision right then and there. I'd rather stick to my guns, draw what I want, and let the chips fall where they may. In other words, fuck it.
MT: You say that exploitation movies from the 70’s and 80’s – specifically “slasher” horror and violent action flicks – have been a big influence on you. Would you care to share a few of your all-time favorite films? Do you have a Top Ten?
JK: Well, it's definitely more than 10. I love a lot of them. The original "Dawn of the Dead" and "Day of the Dead" are huge influences. Not just the movies, but also the nostalgia I feel when I watch them. They remind me of my youth, renting VHS tapes every week and just getting lost in those flicks. All those nights renting tapes was really a fantastic time. I discovered a lot of foreign films that way. One time, a friend and I purposely rented only movies that had one crappy photo on the back or no photo at all, just to see what we would discover. We found some cool shit doing that. What was even more awesome was that these particular tapes didn't get rented too much, so they played like they were brand new. But yeah, it would be an exhausting list if I started to rattle off my faves. "Mask of Satan", "Bloody Pit of Horror", and "Horror Hotel" are some that I watch almost every month.
MT: Your work has a distinctly heavy metal vibe. What are some of your favorite bands? And your “desert island” discs, if any?
JK: I used to try and pay attention to what's going on in the underground metal scene. But over the past few years I've kinda regressed back into the music of my youth. I was a teenager when the whole Thrash thing blew up in the 80s and I still love all of it. I can't go a week without my old Slayer, Metallica, Megadeth, Exodus, Overkill, Kreator, Nuclear Assault, Forbidden, Vio-Lence, Anthrax, and some others I'm probably forgetting. It was just a good time and those albums still kick my ass and make me happy. When I first got into Metal back then I was already watching horror movies, reading comics and trashy paperbacks. Metal was the only thing missing for me. Once I grabbed onto that I knew what I wanted out of life. "Desert Island" discs would basically be the first albums from all those bands I mentioned. I kinda live my life like that already. Just listening to what I grew up with, still bobbing my head to it, just content with all of it and not giving a shit about what's "new".
MT: In previous interviews, you’ve generously gone into great detail about your process, from preliminary sketches to finished product. You don’t appear too worried about giving away trade secrets that I’m assuming it took you years to perfect. Would you like to see more D.I.Y. creators following in your footsteps? Do you welcome the competition?
JK: Well, personally I think I do things the hard way. Everything is done by hand. No computer shit. If someone is inspired by that, then cool. I just do it because it's what I'm used to.
MT: In August of 2013, Frank Santoro published a glowing review of Fukitor in his Comics Journal blog. The very first reaction in the comments section was from someone calling your work “insanely racist”, sparking one of the most epic flame-wars in comics fandom history. Were you surprised by the hostile reaction to your work?
JK: Not really. I've always been aware that there are ignorant people out there, living their lives online, always offended by this or that. That's why I don't try to appeal to people like that. I don't give a fuck what they think. I'm not thinking of idiots when I'm drawing these things. I have zero desire to be "accepted" by comic snobs.
MT: Do you regret getting personally involved in that flame-war? Your comments seemed to add fuel to the fire.
JK: My email was blowing up the whole time with orders so I didn't really have the time to be commenting anyway. But, I made a feeble attempt at explaining my work, which I knew better than to do that. People get real butt-hurt when you call them out on their bullshit. That's why I hadn't been on a message board or comment thread in the years prior. Some people have grown up with the Internet already in their lives and just wanna fight. Little "keyboard warriors". They love to type. It probably didn't do me any favors to jump in, but oh well. I was actually having a great day before it happened. Anyway, I threw some gas on the whole thing and then got out of there to fill the shitload of orders I was getting. I found out later just how much people were crying about it. I laughed pretty hard.
MT: I won’t name names, but I noticed that some of the most vehement attacks came from self-described comics creators whose artwork is, to put it charitably, shit. Do you think jealousy may have played a role?
JK: Oh, fucking totally. Just little hipster arty farty fucks who want other feeble-minded idiots to drool over their stuff instead of mine. Meanwhile, like I said before, I'm not seeking them out. I don't give a fucking fuck. But yeah, I noticed that too. I did some Googling after their lame attempts at actually slamming my art abilities. I'm not that great, but come the fuck on. My stuff isn't the usual chicken-scratch shit that's being peddled these days. I put some fucking time into it.
MT: Are you politically active at all? Would you classify yourself as a conservative or a liberal? Republican, or Democrat? Do you vote?
JK: No politics for me. I mean, some days I'm all "hands across America" and other days I'm pro-nuclear war. So, I'm a little hard to label.
MT: One of the Comics Journal flame-war participants argued that, if you really wanted to be subversive or transgressive, you should make a comic that portrays Osama bin Laden in a heroic light. Setting aside for a moment any debate as to whether or not you portray the American military in a heroic light… would you ever consider drawing such a comic?
JK: Only if I thought of it first. I don't take any suggestions from anyone for my comics. But that idea sounds stupid anyway.
MT: What does the future hold in store for both FUKITOR and Jason Karns? Have you been asked to draw other people's stories? Would you ever consider doing so?
JK: I'm just gonna keep doing my thing. I don't enjoy drawing for other people. I like to do my own stuff.
Comic Bastards would like to thank Jason Karns for making time in his hectic schedule to answer our questions, and for granting us permission to reproduce some of his gloriously demented artwork in our pages.
F.U. Press’ FUKITOR collection is already sold out and used copies are currently selling on Amazon for upwards of sixty smackers. Meanwhile, single issues can always be ordered directly from Jason at eminently reasonable prices via FUKITOR.blogspot.com.
For more insight on Jason’s work, be sure to check out our exclusive sidebar interview with legendary artist Stephen Bissette—of Swamp Thing, Taboo and Tyrant infamy— Here!