Kramers 10 is a vast, impressive volume, not least because it’s huge. It’s also adorned with a strange, stunning, and wildly colorful cover that feels like a mix of futurism and folk art. But naturally, with a comics anthology, we’re not judging by the cover alone—and this year, the contents don’t disappoint.
This edition of Kramers, published by Fantagraphics and, as always, edited by cartoonist Sammy Harkham, draws together works by cartooning big guns like Robert Crumb and Kim Deitch alongside emerging talents—and Eye on Design favorites—Aisha Franz, Simon Hanselmann, and Anna Haifisch. It’s a joy to see Haifisch’s work, which I’d only previously seen online, brought to life in full-page panels. “Ostensibly, it shouldn’t work, but it does. It’s so very scalable—you can blow up or shrink it, like Charles Schultz’s work—Snoopy always looks good at any scale,” says Harkham.
We spoke to Harkham about what it takes to make a great comic, how becoming an editor changed his approach to image-making, and why comics are still seen as a “low brow art form.”
“The whole thing is ridiculous: it serves no capital point.”
To what degree do you think your approach to making anthologies like this is informed by your own work as a cartoonist?
With something like this, I work backwards. First, I ask, “What do I want the emotional or intellectual experience to be?” I don’t think about things like price points or concerns for the publisher or retailer or how hard something might be.
As I’m approaching it like a cartoonist or artist, I only let the business brain come in later. With client work, for instance, my ego has to be in the back row; the goal is to get them what they need. With this, the whole thing is ridiculous: it serves no capital point.
Why the large format? It feels like a very “deliberate” read, if that makes sense. When you’re in it, you’re in it.
There is a psychological component to large books. One thing I knew was that I didn’t want it to be more than $35. The format created a different context for a seemingly “low brow” art form in making it the size of a large photography magazine or big comic book annuals. I wanted it have that pep of a large magazine; I didn’t want it to feel like a book that you’d find in an art book store. I also didn’t want it to be too heavy, it’s large enough to carry.
“I’m not trying to convince people that comics are an art form, or build a new art form, or ‘spread the word.’”
You mentioned comics as a “seemingly low brow art form.” To me, it seems they’re increasingly not being seen as such, when you think of things like the Raymond Pettibon exhibition at the New Museum in New York, or the House of Illustration gallery in London.
I’m realistic in the sense that I’m not trying to convince people that comics are an art form, or build a new art form, or “spread the word.” I’m interested in the curious reader who likes to dig deep and learn—to invest in it, and find things they’re curious about. By its nature it’s not for a mass audience. In Western culture, drawing is not appreciated as a thing unto itself—people look at a beautiful drawing and think, “Do you make it into a show? Can you make it move? How can you make money from it?”
Comics from the U.S. have existed as a supplemental, added bonus to the newspapers you read or the magazines you buy. There are only 40 political cartoonists on staff [at U.S. publications now]—it used to be, like, thousands. Comics are very big now in memoirs, and the mainstream comic has changed, too. It used to be superhero comics, and now it’s this young adult genre with things like Smile [by Raina Telgemeier].
“The kind of comic book art I’m interested in is highly idiosyncratic. It’s not trying to make friends. It’s not necessary trying to make enemies, but it’s personal work.”
What makes you excited about a particular comic?
The kind of comic book art I’m interested in is highly idiosyncratic. It’s not trying to make friends. It’s not necessary trying to make enemies, but it’s personal work. Comics are at their very best when there’s a mainline from their brain to the pen to the page. When you get that, it’s a very powerful thing. With, for instance, a Julie Doucet comic book, you get a very intense sense of this person in all of their messiness; it comes out in the line, in how they draw. It’s a very deep connection and a very deep view of the psyche—that’s when it’s very exciting. I’m not only interested in people with a high level of craft, and I’m not just interested in folk artists, but that’s the unifying thread through the work I like, so [Kramers] feels cohesive even with a wide variety of different styles.
The cover’s amazing. Why did you go with that?
Lale [Westvind’s] cover feels like such a pure expression. There’s no sense of affectation—it feels very direct and pure—and you can see these connections. What I like about her drawing and her use of color is that it echoes artists like Jack Kirby and also Victor Moscoso, yet the way she’s doing things, like the feathering, is like EC Comics.
For the front and back cover, we only used a four-color Pantone with gold foil, and the back cover [by Anouk Ricard] mixes those colors to create new colors. It couldn’t be more different. There’s so much joy in just seeing cartoon characters moving around. Anouk is one of the great humor cartoonists, and I think that’s dying. It’s a very hard thing to do a comic that’s funny and visually dynamic.
I love that description, that the work that shines has no affectation. It’s like with music, something can be played not-that-well, like maybe The Ramones or Daniel Johnston, but is still super powerful. Then something can be technically brilliant, like Eric Clapton, and it’s incredibly boring—at least to me at least.
Yeah, someone like Adam Buttrick’s work feels so unforced. [Kramers] has a subtext about making comics—we used comics on the belly band and the one on the table of contents by David Amram is very much abut being a cartoonist, with a father and son at a grave. It’s placing modern artists in this continuum [of cartoonists]. All these artists from various places and eras share the fact they use comics as a personal medium; and that they’re inspired by contributing to this medium.
With Kramers the unifying line is trying to find work that feels part of this continuum, this river of heritage and content that comes before and adding to it. [The work] has to feel honest to its cultural touchstones.
I’m not interested in reality—I want to read a scene and feel it was deeply felt. 99% of work in all mediums is not deeply felt.
What have you learned about your own practice from putting together the Kramers series?
With the anthology, I have to vouch for it in the same way and to the same very high standards I have for my own comics. With Kramers, if I don’t 100% love something I won’t be able to put it in the book. It’s taken me 20 years to realize that what makes something work is honesty. Often when people talk about honesty in art they mean lived experience, but I’m not interested in reality—I want to read a scene and feel it was deeply felt. And 99% of work in all mediums is not deeply felt. I find craft without content despicable. It’s often the limitations of someone’s skills that become their strengths and their style: it’s always just the artist voice and working with those limitations that makes them unique.