January 10, 2014

Spotlight: Caitlin Skaalrud

The dark side of comic art never looked so sweet.

Caitlin Skaalrud is a wunderkind in the world of printing, lithography, comic art and just about anything she cares to turn her hand to. A one-woman operation based in Minneapolis, where she runs her company, Talk Weird Press, Caitlin imagines, draws, prints and publishes her own work from start to finish, making no compromises along the way. Her work reminds me of a Nordic, cartooning Angela Carter; Jungian symbolism converges with a kind of stark, haunting Midwest Americana. She writes visceral modern fairytales that are stripped down to bare, archetypal bones; spartan tales of descent into the human psyche. When you read her work you can sense the isolation in each beautifully monochrome skyline. You can feel the cold night air on your skin.

I asked her a few questions about her incredibly diverse and demanding creative life as a lithographer/poet/everything, and the inspiration, thoughts and motivation behind it all.

THE LE SIGH: What drew you to lithography and specifically your printing press, Maisie James?

Caitlin Skaalrud: It might have started with a VH1 special on Green Day on an old VHS tape - but that's the long way around. The ethos of DIY had fascinated me since I was old enough to discover how to staple my copy paper drawings together and make picture books. Probably when I was three. That was absolutely my favorite thing to do. And, after discovering there was this entire culture devoted to that spirit, and it came with music and art and comics as keystones, I was hooked. I dreamed of being able to print and produce my own books - comics, fiction, whatever I wanted to make, essentially, but didn't take the actual shape of running my own offset litho press until someone offered it to me. 

In college at MCAD, I'd majored in Comic Art and lucked out to have Zak Sally as a professor early in my time there. Funny enough and unbeknownst to me in the beginning, he was the author of one of my favorite comics, and had traveled a similar path to establishing his own little publishing house La Mano with Maisie the printing press. I'd asked him, as my adviser, to review a scholarship application in which I described my hopes to be a self-publisher and publish the comics of other artists. He sort of paused and looked at me, mulling over something that would change my life, and asked if I wanted to buy his old printing press. The start of a beautiful friendship and my foray into publishing.

I began taking a slew of printmaking classes as well, to supplement the lithography, and I also discovered I had some natural affinity for it, a natural, untrained knack for printing. If you read my log of printing the Xeric-funded book Sea Change, however, I turned out to be no born savant. When my beginner's luck ran out, I ran smack dab into the learning curve of running what is essentially a glorified copy machine from the 1960's, hard.

As for her moniker, Maisie is the name of King-Cat self-publishing guru John Porcellino's cat, and James was my addition - the name of my grandfather, for luck.

TLS: I absolutely love your story "The Wife Hand." Could you tell us a bit about it and what inspired you to write it?

CS: "The Wife Hand" is the story of an aspiring writer with few to no chops who takes his wife out on a trip to a cabin, and utilizes it as a chance to begin work on his attempt for the "Great American Novel." The drawback for the wife is that she is just an arm jutting out from the center of his back, and her main purpose in life is to babysit him, indulge him bemoaning his craft, and provide nightly hand-jobs. She comes to the decision on this trip to divorce him, but in the only way left available to her.

This story actually had a very different impetus - normally, I conceive of and write and draw a story purely out of my own desire to do so. But, I'd been working my cafe job with a woman, Lindsay, who'd become a good friend of mine - and I'd drawn her name for our Secret Santa last year. Being a cartoonist, my natural state is strapped-for-cash and my biggest skill is drawing. That math was simple. I offered to draw her something instead of purchasing a gift. Between waiting tables and pouring wine for the retirement swathe of a northeastern suburb, we'd talk everything from dirty jokes to existential crises. She'd always impressed me with her tireless work ethic and graceful optimism - pair that with a filthy sense of humor, and I'm your pal for life. We'd also discussed her impending divorce and new, much improved romance - and how raising her two children affected that. I was doubly impressed that she was my age, when I just had a cat to be mildly responsible for and a large, messy closet of a rented room.

I'd wanted to draw a short, funny comic about a wife stuck in her husband's back, but seeing this opportunity, I decided to infuse the ideas that Lindsay and I had discussed about wholeness and marriage and love (especially for oneself, if in an ultimately unhealthy relationship) and that dark, gutter sense of humor. Ultimately, I drew her the comic and gave her all the originals as her late Christmas/early birthday gift.

TLS: I read that your first word was "Batman." What comics did you love as a child and what ones do you enjoy now as an adult?

CS: I read a lot of picture books, actually. My mother was a second grade teacher at the time and, having arrived an hour early to school as a child, I'd read her classroom books and listen to the hard rock station on the radio. Specifically Ferdinand the Bull by Munro Leaf and Richard Lawson, and this criminally out of print "children's" book called Ha Ha Ha Hyenas by Lou Myers. Both beautiful books, but the former classically so, and the latter in a way I can only call demented and wonderfully grotesque. It's about a group of erratically drawn hyenas who scare away all their dinner prospects by cackling and cackling until they encounter a pink elephant named Sally. I think they eat Sally in the end. And cackle. I remember them having the shape of animals a three-year-old might apply to every living creature - vaguely three or four legged, with a neck that sloped into a loosely-defined head. Wagging lines. And big, red, smeared lipstick mouths. Needless to say, I remember it vividly, even if no image of it exists on the Internet to reference to you. That, and Peanuts, of course. Lots and lots of Peanuts. Manga, like Gundam and Gravitations, when I was a teen.

Now, mostly independent and I guess what you'd call alternative comics - Love and Rockets, King-Cat, Lose, Sammy the Mouse - mixed with the classical strip artists of old - Tintin, Terry and the Pirates, more Peanuts. Always Peanuts.

TLS: What are the upsides and downsides of self-publishing?

CS: Essentially, they are one in the same. You do it all yourself, for better or worse. Every self-publisher I know has an extensive network of people, colleagues, and resources to facilitate their art and promote it, especially in tougher economic times, but it comes down to the fact you are the one spending the time and energy on every facet of a piece of work to see it to completion. Your profound effort doesn't end with just generating the content - you design it, you produce it, you promote it, you haul it on your back or in your backseat to conventions, you sometimes haul most of it back home and use it for furniture because you can't sell it.

On the other hand, you have all the control you know what to do with. If you have a specific, vivid, and electric vision of what you want this thing to become, as many self-publishing cartoonists do, and you either can't tolerate or won't tolerate the compromise of vision that might come with collaborating with a publisher, a printer, a contact - then it's absolutely the route for you. That utter artistic control is the benefit as well as the obstacle, in some instances. It's constant learning. No laurels to rest on. You know, "Who the hell knows what a laurel is anyway, and why should I need them!" No one to tell you printing a run of a thousand is a bad marketing idea, or that metallic silver ink isn't trending with book design. No one to tell you that your content needs something punchier or more cinematic or anything at all. You answer to yourself, and yes, to yourself, still, when you don't do your homework.

TLS: You wrote a post on your blog recently about your struggle with depression, and your comic "Cartoon Responsibly" explores the links between your field of work and mental illness, alcoholism and suicide. Do you think a lot of people overlook the dark side of cartoons?

CS: Definitely. American culture, specifically, too. In Europe and in Asia we see cartoons and comics viewed more readily as a vehicle for serious material, as well as the light. Along the line, American cartoons and the word itself seemed to focus only on humor-potential or children's material. That tired old line of, "Silly adult, comics are for kids!" As artists, cartoonists see it for what it actually is - just a medium for all types of material and topics, not a genre. Gag cartoons and the funny newspaper strip seemed to dominate the American consciousness, and action and superheroes ruled the comic book industry. It was in alternative and independent that you saw people more readily broaching topics like autobiography, sex, love and rock and roll and all that good stuff. Exactly because they were self-directed, and these were the topics important to each author.

Specifically about "Cartoon Responsibly" and Wally Wood, who was a big part of my research for the comic - he worked for that superhero-dominated comic book industry, in the time when it was a much bigger part of American culture than it is now. And he sort of worked himself to death doing so. There's some validity to the idea that cartooning requires a certain set of personality traits or motivations to sustain the long working hours and the diminishing returns, and that subset of traits also may contribute to things like anxiety, depression, and alcoholism or drug abuse. For me, I certainly think that's the case, but I don't think it's a requirement, just somewhat of an unfortunate trend.

TLS: A lot of your images evoke a haunting sense of quiet and isolation - stars at night over a dark forest, or an empty street decorated with shadows. Being a cartoonist, poet, self-publisher and all-around one-woman show, your work must be an incredibly solitary process.

CS: Yes. Being introverted helps, a lot. Part of my fascination with the quiet, and the still and seemingly empty, is partly from growing up where I did - in a tiny, tiny rural town. My family comes from even tinier, more rural communities in West Central Minnesota, and I spent a lot of time there growing up. Prime stoic Nordic territory. An attitude that ran over into our household - quiet and isolation was a natural state for me, and though it drove me nuts at points and still does, I enjoy it too. Sitting alone for hours at a time to put forth the effort needed to draw comics was not a big stretch for me.

The workload of art school also appealed to me, but it was there I learned I could also work in the company of my peers, and that was fun. And, having begun self-publishing in a more serious way, I've needed to develop the connections and friendships needed to support that, and now I relish them as something that really feeds me and my work. It may be a new trait coming to surface, but I enjoy working with or sharing space with certain cartoonists, and I have a few who are my sounding boards. Everything I publish goes past those two first, and their input has a real demonstrable effect on my work. For better or for worse, I'm heavily influenced by my friends, and I'm beginning to find where that happens in my comics, too.

TLS: Do you believe pain is necessary to create art?

CS: No. Pain, however, is the great motivator. If you're in pain, your first priority at that point is to make it stop. For me, there's a large portion of that - how I communicate with myself is often through drawing something, so if I'm in pain--mental, emotional, social--I'm usually trying to process that. And I don't handle stress or pain gracefully otherwise, or patiently. Often that drives me to work: running off to isolate myself and drawing, being the equivalent of reaching for a bottle of ibuprofen for a headache. The absolutely enjoyable way is the alternative: drawing or creating out of the sheer joy of it. Making shit because you can, and it's fun. I think it all falls onto a spectrum; pain being one end of the motivation scale, and for beauty's own sake on the other. We shift along it, back and forth, sometimes get stuck, sometimes swing wildly back and forth.

I guess for profit and to make one's living might fall somewhere in the middle. I'm usually swinging to wildly to bother stopping in the middle.

TLS: How do you like to spend your time when you aren't working/creating?

CS: Rare as that is--and besides pining to be working or drawing again--listening to music. Podcasts, Playing RPGs and Minecraft. Swapping stories or talking comics or cracking dirty jokes with my close friends. Imbibing an ill-advised amount of caffeine. Eating Asian food. Heroic sci-fi television series. Relearning the guitar. Getting cartoon-related tattoos. Babysitting, dog-sitting, house-sitting. Reading, reading, reading.

TLS: Is there anything you haven't done in art that you'd love to do, that you still tentatively dream of?

CS: Painting? As loathe as I am to admit it, I do have a few ambitions of just doing fine art for my own enjoyment--forget that it's probably more profitable to me in the end that comics--and I'd love to learn to paint. To do large scale drawings. Craft stationary. Make greeting cards, how embarrassing! I'm supposed to be punk rock, or something! But maybe I'm just greedy. I want to have the time to have studio practice and be a cartoonist in a major way, too. Both are incredibly time-consuming endeavors. It's a little crazy to attempt. But then, that's how I like it.

Check out more of Caitlin's work here.

Holly Cassell, an artist and blogger that has a longstanding love affair with hotels. Her floor is always covered in glitter. She writes about her world here.