From his groundbreaking Swamp Thing partnership with Alan Moore and John Totleben, to his wildly influential horror anthology series Taboo, to his beautiful passion project Tyrant, to his recent status as a pop culture scholar and artistic educator of the first rank, Stephen Bissette is widely hailed as one of the comics industry’s most respected living legends. He also happens to be a crusader against censorship, an indefatigable champion of creators’ rights, and a generous mentor to up and coming young talent. It should come as no surprise, then, that it was through Stephen’s efforts that I and many others were first made aware of Jason Karns’ FUKITOR.
Indeed, when I informed Stephen that I was interviewing Jason Karns, he graciously agreed to offer his insights into what it is, exactly, that makes FUKITOR and it’s creator stand out from the current crop of indy books and artists.
As always, Stephen’s remarks are cogent, potent, and endlessly entertaining. After reading the interview below, I think you’ll have to agree that Jason Karns couldn’t have asked for a more eloquent and capable defender.
MARK THIBODEAU: What is it about Karns' work that makes it so special for you?
STEPHEN BISSETTE: Jason just cuts loose without inhibitions, and he has drawing, color, and sequential narrative chops that are always spot-on and that work for me. I love his drawing AS drawings, and I love his sense of the comics medium as inherently impatient and assaultive. He knows what he wants to do: he gets us there, and gets it done, with alarming clarity.
The panel and page borders can barely contain the horrors Jason is eager to unleash. I respond and love that energy and intensity. There's an unpretentious, no-nonsense, 'cut to the chase' reveling in the exposed marrow of genre (horror, war, fantasy, exploitation) touchstones and tropes that I find intoxicating and hilarious, and the brevity of each installment is part and parcel of those pleasures.
Though it's the orchestrated transgressive components most folks respond to—positively or negatively—being the in-your-face xenophobia, sexism, and gore, there's so much else going on. Jason's FUKITOR creations are of a piece with infamous underground comix demolitions experts like S. Clay Wilson, Savage Pencil (Edwin Pouncey) and Jim Osborne, and he has obvious affinities with his immediate (and more mainstream) contemporaries like Mike Mignola, Gary Panter, and Eric Powell.
I mean, Jason works with words, too—compare his stripped-down dialogue rhythms and absurdist street slang to what Wilson, Panter, Mignola, and Powell rely upon as well (and Jack Kirby's 1970s comics)—in ways nobody seems to be talking about. He's razor-sharp in his writing, sans niceties. That's part of the cocktail, too.
I love and respond to Jason's impatience as an artist and storyteller. It's old-fashioned comics in one sense—cover, splash, BANG into the action, story after story—and in another way it's like channel surfing with the attention span of an adrenaline addict. It's all raw, jangly nerve endings and high-octane fuel.
That I am of the movie and comix “gorehound” generation Jason is culturally and conceptually attuned to helps. I mean, when Jason riffs on, say, the Blind Dead—BANG! Got it; run with it! No need for explanations. I know precisely what and where he's coming from and just dive in. Those elements that are obstacles for some are wide-open gateways and hard-wired entry points for me.
MT: How does Karns' work stand out from the current crop of indie comics, in your opinion?
SB: FUKITOR (the penname says it all) is all about tearing new assholes for this era of indulgent coddling, memoir, and precious crafting: assault on 'good taste,' restraint, the stable page/panel grid coy storytelling tactics, subdued color palettes, the very texture of the page.
Mind you, I value and love this era we're in of great comics, comix, and graphic novels, but I crave antidotes and toxins at times. FUKITOR is a glorious purging agent. The wit is in the vigor. Jason always gets me laughing, blasts out the cobwebs and clutter. The lusty, rousing joy with sheer mayhem Jason embodies—and runs with every time—is the antithesis of the new norm of comics, comix, and graphic novels we're in. He's as impatient with “no, you have to do it THIS way” or “no, THIS is important comics” as he is with anything in the way of just getting to the joy juice.
Jason is as sick of, say, the tedious templates of Robert E. Howard-derived barbarian comics and the “you have to set up your story” narrative forms as he is with the formalism of Clowes or Ware. FUCK IT: Jason's covers and splash pages promise the steak AND the sizzle, he'll brook about three panels or one page of setup, at most, then all hell breaks loose. It's giddy and utterly alive.
There's nothing, absolutely nothing, novelistic or confessional about Jason's comix: they are unabashed sensory sensationalistic overload, splashy spectacles, sans any patience with the niceties of formalist structures or navel-gazing. I love 'em.
MT: When did you first become aware of Karns' work, and how?
SB: I think I saw one of his color self-published comix in a friend's collection, and I found out how to order them directly from Jason, and did so. Every few months I'd catch up with Jason online (email or Facebook) and order whatever else he'd done since my last order.
I love that there's now the book collection of Jason's FUKITOR work, but I wouldn't trade the original print editions for the world. There's a tactile immediacy to the self-published color comix themselves that's almost electric. Jim Rugg was talking about them with enthusiasm when he came and spoke at the Center for Cartoon Studies, and I knew exactly what he was talking about. Jason came right out of the gate with something fresh and bracing, and it's a unique body of work on any number of levels.
MT: Would you care to comment on the controversy that began at The Comics Journal website before spreading across the comics-related web like a particularly nasty case of politically correct anal warts?
SB: Well, hell. What can one say? Look, it's all there on the page, isn't it? These are lovingly rendered, skillfully done, but utterly unfettered rampages of misanthropy, misogyny, xenophobia and biological dread, taboo-busting retina-stripping gorefests. That is the POINT, that's all it's about: that's the rocket fuel, the joy, the jizz of Jason's comix.
That that online flamewar was aired on the internet sites of the publisher of Eros Comix, of the definitive two-volume biography of S. Clay Wilson, the publisher of the definitive Rory Hayes collected works, speaks volumes as to the hypocrisy of all this. The ironies are as self-evident as the intent and content of FUKITOR.
If you can't see the “fuck it” in FUKITOR, you're clueless. It isn't for you, then. If you can't see that the work ISN'T the creator, but the creation, you need more than a sanity check.
Then again, the online vitriol led directly to the book edition of FUKITOR, and Jason has thick skin: Gary Groth knows what he's doing, it's all turned out well, and it's only gas on the fire for Jason's work. He's not doing his comics for those who don't get it. He's doing 'em for HIMSELF.
The outrage at Jason's work is to be expected: Fukitor is calculated to offend and determined to outrage and infuriate. That radiates from every cover and every page. On the other hand, we're now a full generation or two into a comix environment where serious scholars, academics, publishers, and readers still don't understand how THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE fueled Charles Burns and GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER fed Gary Panter, though it's been blatantly obvious from the beginning. They fete Charles and Gary (rightfully so) without recognizing or understanding the “Monster Kid” keys to their creative work, though it's right there on the page. The same goes for Jason and Jason's work.
If we have to use the market terminology, Jason and FUKITOR are as drive-in/grindhouse as comix can be, and they're honestly and earnestly of that universe. Jason isn't pretending or a pretender: it's in his DNA, it's on the page, it's in every line he lays down and every color he sets ablaze.
Comic Bastards would like to thank Stephen Bissette for being so generous with his time and expertise. You can keep up with Stephen’s ongoing projects and read a vast array of his always illuminating commentary at his website: SRBissette.com. Also be sure to check out Tim Paxton’s MONSTER!, a digest-sized magazine in which Stephen has an ongoing column. His recent piece on Bigfoot at the Movies was particularly excellent. - MT