Monday, December 13, 2010

FOG! Interview: Comics Archaeologist CRAIG YOE!


Craig Yoe wears many hats.

He is a writer, a cartoonist, an editor, a historian, a designer and promoter.

Craig has written/edited almost three dozen books covering various aspects of popular culture and art focusing on such iconic subjects as Mickey Mouse, Barbie, Popeye and Felix The Cat.

Prior to launching his successful YOE! Studio design firm with his creative partner/wife Clizia Gussoni, Craig was the VPGM/Creative Director for Jim Henson and the Muppets and has worked as a Creative Director for both Disney and Nickelodeon.  Craig is currently an Adjunct Professor of Art at Syracuse University and has won such top industry awards, including the Gold Medal from the Society of Illustrators, the Addy for his MTV Station ID, and the Eisner Award.

Craig also is the ringleader of the International Team of Comics Historians (I.T.C.H.) blog, where he and his team of contributors chronicle an amazing amount of comic ephemeral material on a daily basis.

YOE! Books released eleven books this year with several more already announced for 2011.  This interview is the result of several months of correspondence and I'm happy to have discovered another hat that he wears quite well – friend.

What was your first exposure to comics?

Thankfully my Mom was not a comic book burner like so many--she got me a subscription to Walt Disney's Comics and Stories when I was six. Oh, those wonderful Donald Duck Adventures by Carl Barks, I just fell into their magical world! And then Mom would buy me extra rewards, on the rare occasions when I was good, of Little Lulu comics by John Stanley.


I got to meet both Barks and Stanley when I grew up chronologically.  John, in fact, became like a father to me for a time and helped me find a house in his neighborhood when I moved to New York to work for Jim Henson and the Muppets. What a heady time that was!

You were encouraged to do your own comics after talking with R. Crumb and asking him if you could  reprint some art in an underground newspaper, Acorn, that you edited and published in 1969 in Akron, Ohio. In the proverbial what came first, the chicken or the egg, were you more interested in writing about comics or making comics?

When I was a teenager I had become interested in comics again when I discovered Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's Spider-Man and the whole Marvel Universe of the mid-sixties.
I published a fanzine then about not just Marvel, but about the whole world of comics and cartooning that I had fallen deeply in teenage love with. I was drawing comics for fanzines by swiping Ditko and writing about the history of Golden Age comics and their cartoonists when I found such goodies in my haunting of old bookstores.

The brush with the great R. Crumb came a couple of years later in 1969, he encouraged me to not only reprint his work in the hippie newspaper, I edited, but to draw my own comics.

He was very evangelical about that at the time, a very encouraging guy. Crumb became every bit as important as Barks and Stanley to me both as someone who produced great comics and as a major inspiration. But, I really haven't done such a good job of following Crumb's advice I'm afraid. I still don't draw many comics, though I'd like to do more.

To this day, I have a debilitating Artist's Block.

So, I mostly just produce books about other cartoonists, as a writer and designer I shine a light on them and as a cartoonist live in their shadow.

What makes comics such an appealing medium to work in/write about?

Comics are just so damned cool, I love them now more than ever. But, I have to quickly add, I HATE writing. It's so very painful, though not as bad as drawing for me, so I am able to somehow do it every time by the skin of my teeth.

Like Dorothy Parker I can say I detest writing, but I love having written!

I love putting together books and then holding them in my hands, and seeing others get enjoyment and maybe even some enlightenment by seeing the Old Good Stuff of cartooning geniuses in them.

I first became aware of your work when a friend of mine gave me a copy of Weird But True Toon Factoids and then a few years later I started picking up your various Arf books. How did these collections of comic ephemera develop?


I am fascinated about what a big part of culture comics in the first part of the 20th century was.

Old Skool Cartoonists, at least the newspaper strip guys, were like rock stars--and deservedly so.

So it was fun to put together a book in the style of Ripley's Believe It Or Not about comics and cartoonists. It was an accessible way to share fascinating facts about the toon world. That was Weird But True Toon Factoids.

The Arf book series was something I dreamed up decades ago and had a bunch of publishers that wanted to do it. But then I got cold feet. Writer's and Artist's block is the bane of my existence.

Finally, though, I wrote Gary Groth an email, he was someone that had wanted to publish Arf years before. I don't think he remembered Arf at all, but he dug the concept when I contacted again him, and I put out four volumes; Modern Arf, Arf Forum, Comic Arf and Arf Museum with Fantagraphics.
I owe Gary, Kim Thompson and Eric Reynolds a big ass thanks for that. I am very proud of the Arf books. There's really some amazing cartoonists in them, many of whom nobody ever heard of, even my comics historian friends. The comics and cartoons that I dug up from the past to put in those books did blow a few minds.

In Clean Cartoonists' Dirty Drawings and Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman's Co-creator Joe Shuster, you have examined some risque work from cartoonists who are known for much different work. Were there challenges from publishers or the cartoonists or their families for putting this material back in the public eye?

I didn't get one complaint from those folks.
One comics critic did say that I should have buried the pornographic illustrations by Joe Shuster in my backyard when I discovered them and not tell anybody about Joe’s erotic work. But I believe it's important to document and share history. And I believe the work Joe did was groundbreaking and beautifully drawn and shows what a brilliant draftsman he was – the art is to his great credit.
Joe did Superman when he was a teenager and while that art had much verve and gusto it was lacking in some respects since he was quite young when he did the first Supes work. The pornography Joe Shuster did was mature work--in every way. It is really quite wonderful. The art and his frankness in dealing with sexual fantasies speak tremendously well of him. And the publication of this material now is important in understanding Shuster as an artist, his career, comics, culture, and censorship.
The material Joe illustrated went all the way to the Supreme Court, and lost, and the publisher eventually went to jail, though Joe was never implicated as no one knew he had done it. I detail all about this in the book and reveal, too, how Dr. Fredric Wertham and the U.S. Senate was involved and how juvenile delinquency, neo-Nazis and 2 murders were part of the whole story.

It's fascinating stuff and has been optioned for a major motion picture and there is now a fantastic Big Name director psyched to do it. Shuster pornography will play a major part in an exhibit I’m curating for the Museum of Sex in New York that will open early next year called Comics Stripped.

How's all that for a book on comics history?

Your book Boody: The Bizarre Comics of Boody Rogers was published by Fantagraphics after their success with reprinting work by Fletcher Hanks. Were they just looking for another obscure cartoonist to reprint or was the book the result of your own passion for Rogers' work?

Boody is another cartoonist I became very close with.

We exchanged letters 3 or 4 times a week for years and talked often on the phone and I went and stayed with him in his home in Texas and he came out this way and saw me. I AM passionate about him, His work does compare to Fletcher Hanks in that it is so bizarre, but his work was not any way naive. Boody Rogers was a greatly skilled artist and hilarious story teller.--he consciously MEANT to be wacky and over the top. I love the wonkiness of Hanks who got there partly because of character flaws.

But, I put Boody up there with ANY of the skilled Master Cartoonists.

Boody Rogers could draw like a god and was as funny as hell and a stupendous cartoonist!
Last year, you formed a line called Yoe Books with IDW. How did this partnership come to be?

Greg Goldstein, the COO of IDW, has long been a friend and I have to deeply thank him for conceiving the idea of Yoe Books and taking it to to the astute and incredibly supportive Ted Adams, the head of IDW.

Ted knew of my work as a comics historian and was excited to form a relationship. I couldn't be happier working with these two and my wonderful editor at IDW, Justin Eisinger, and the rest of the IDW crew like AnnaMaria White, Dirk Wood and Alan Payne. What an amazing group these people and their associates at IDW are.

IDW is kicking ass and take names in the comics world and I am thrilled to be a small part of that with Yoe Books.

Clizia, Craig and Pig-Pen
Speaking of people with Yoe Books, folks are amazed by our prodigious output, but many valued friends help put the books together – I couldn't do it without them. And I'm quick to say that I have a partner in all of this, Clizia Gussoni, who is amazing in her editorial and design abilities and her dedication. Clizia really makes these books happen.


She also just happens to be my deeply loved wife and my brand new baby's momma—Little Griffin just joined the Yoe Books team! He's a dynamo and I expect to increase our output now that baby's on board!

Your first book published through IDW was The Art of Steve Ditko. With such a large body of his work in the public domain, how did you go about deciding what belonged in the book?
My focus was on the incredibly innovative stories Ditko did at Charlton.

Steve is up there with (Will) Eisner, (Bernard) Krigstein, and (Jim) Steranko in expanding the language and form of comics. Amazing ground-breaking, envelope-pushing, comics. These comics, in that sense, were much stronger than his Marvel work--which I also, of course, love.

Steve must have felt a liberating freedom at Charlton and really let himself go exploring new possibilities in doing comics storytelling—so experimental. The work I present in The Art of Ditko is still miles ahead in revolutionary story telling techniques compared to almost all of the lesser comic book adventure artists past and present.
Did you speak with Ditko at all while putting the book together, and if so, was he supportive?

I knew Ditko and had been to his studio at his invitation and had given him a tour of the Muppet Creature Shop and introduced him to Jim Henson and have exchanged a number of letters as I detail in the book.

I worked with him when I commissioned him to draw a story for Big Boy Comics for the restaurant chain. So, I knew him and I called when I was going to do this book and invited him to participate both financially and editorially.  Ditko politely, but strongly, declined.  Being polite was maybe a big-hearted thing for him to do, because I get the idea he does not like retrospectives of his work.
A rare photo of the enigmatic Steve Ditko
If I understand him correctly, and, I'm sorry to say, I must admit that I find his philosophies very difficult to comprehend, Ditko thinks it's important for the artist and public to only focus on current creations.  Obviously as a comics historian I strongly don't agree.  Wearing my OTHER hat, as cartoonist I can see that he has a point, though.

I think it almost killed Wally Wood when fans would tell him "I like your old stuff better!"

In your book Krazy & Ignatz In Tiger Tea, you republish the only extended storyline by George Herriman. But, after looking at your website, I've seen strips from the storyline that didn't make it into the book. Was there any particular reason why only selected strips were reprinted?
I chose what I felt were the best strips from this series of strips. Each strip was episodic, there wasn't a traditional story line as such. So this was a way to put together a smaller killer book of the best of the best of strips from the Tiger Tea theme that Herriman explored.

I'm now finishing another Herriman book, The Art of Krazy Kat and George Herriman: A Celebration (Abrams Comics Art).
This big full color coffee table art book is ambitious and has many past and contemporary essays in it including one by Calvin and Hobbes' Bill Watterson, But the most exciting part of the book is the tons of rare and unpublished work by Herriman – strips, drawings and paintings, that will thrill George Herriman fans--and who reading this isn't?!

I'm looking forward to that!

Back to Herriman's Tiger Tea for a moment, one of the more interesting aspects of the storyline is the drug subtext. Was this controversial at the time it was in papers or did the metaphor go unnoticed by his syndicate and readers?
Herriman and his funny looking cigarette
There is no evidence that there was controversy surrounding the Tiger Tea strips at the time, that I know of.  People probably just thought the story line was merely great entertainment -- which it certainly was. The audiences today are much more critical today, I think-not necessarily for the better.  "It's only lines on paper, folks", to quote a great, wise man, R. Crumb.

The Complete Milt Gross Comic Books and Life Story is one of the most beautifully designed books I've ever seen. As a cartoonist who was such a huge influence to legends such as Bob Clampett to Kurtzman to Crumb, to Kricfalusi, why do you think that he had become such an obscurity in recent decades?

Thanks! That's sad, isn't it, how Gross dropped into obscurity after being a brilliant, well known pioneer in comic strips, ethnic humor, graphic novels, animation, auto-biographical comics, things like book reviews in comic form, cartoonists being involved with movies and the theater, et cetera?



 Jitterbug Follies, one of the two animated shorts directed by Gross

I am so happy to have brought out this book to show the breadth of Milt Gross' life and the gut-splitting humor and bizarro wild art work that were the hallmarks of his comics.

I could never imagine reading a book like this on an electronic reader. The book itself is a work of art. Are there considerations made when designing a book that at some point it might need to adapt to an electronic format?

I don't currently give it one thought.

I am trying to design objects of art with my books. I take the phrase "coffee table art book" very seriously. These books are meant to be something you will proudly display in your home--and maybe use to turn the clueless civilians onto great cartoonists! I love printing the work of brilliant dead cartoonists on dead trees!

Which is not to say that I'm at all against technology or working in e-books in the future.

I love what computer can do in design, the internet is extremely important to Yoe Books in getting the word out – I find them exciting.

Did you know that I designed the visuals for what I think was the first comics oriented website?

Very early on DC Comics contacted me, as some company called AOL contacted them and wanted to put together something called a website as this new company AOL felt this new thing called the World Wide Web needed content. I designed all the visuals that went on DC’s pioneering site as nobody else knew how to go about the task. But, DC thought I might have the gumption and interest--the foolhardiness--to figure out how to do this. And in this very early period for the web I created a "daily comics website" it featured facts from Weird But True Toon Factoids.  It was maybe the first of its kind, just like the young whipper snappers with all their things they call blogs today.

Stefan, me and and Al Gore invented the inter-fucking-net!

So, I love digital and pixels--Yoe Books is proud to host the blog for the International Team of Comics Historians (ITCH).  It’s a great bunch of folks that have a deep passion for comics history and put together amazing stuff there. I will figure out in the future how to get Yoe Books involved more in the world of digital and pixels--all in time.

The Golden Collection of Krazy Kool Klassic Kids' Komics is a reminder of what comics should be.  Did you chose specific cartoonists and then find work by them to fill the book or were there particular stories that you knew from the outset that you wanted to include?

In an anthology you might want a certain amount of name artists to interest the fans.  So I have in the book Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko doing kids comics and then famed kids comics cartoonists like John Stanley and Carl Barks   From children's books, Krazy Kool Klassic Kids' Komics presents work by Dr. Seuss and Syd Hoff from a rare periods when they drew comics. But, because well-known creators like that were carrying the book I was able to have unknowns or little recognized comic book personal favorite cartoonists like Louis Ferstadt, Jim Tyer, Vince Fago, Jack Bradbury who are every bit a great as those celebs.

There is so much creativity and fun in those old kids comics--the book has been an eye-opener for many and enjoyed great sales.

Both adults and kids have been loving it and the best part adults are reading it to their kids for beautiful shared experiences!
Much of your work (and this book in particular) examines or celebrates comics with a sense of humor. Why do you think comics that are fun have virtually disappeared?

People have lost their sense of humor!

I am all for putting the comic back in comic books! Many don't like the term "comic books" and have coined the phrase "graphic novel".

BARF, GAG!

I love the term "comic books" – especially the COMIC part! I am hoping by showing people Milt Gross, and the cartoonists in The Golden Collection of Krazy Kool Klassic Kids' Komics, a new generation will realize what a wonderful medium comics are for humor and also kids comics that all ages can enjoy and love.

The first volume in The Good Girl Art Library is Dan DeCarlo's Jetta, a short lived, but charming book from the fifties. What set Jetta apart from the hundreds of other short lived titles?


Dan DeCarlo.


What a master of of good girl art DeCarlo was!

Dan – he is the perfect one to start the new series and another friend of mine that I always wanted to publish.  Jetta is so cool because she has that teen age humor thing going on--but is set in the set in the future, at least how people in the 1950s looked at the future.


The pinups by all the contemporary amazingly talented devotees of DeCarlo were ginormous hit and really put the book over.

Do you think that the almost universal positive reaction to your books is indicative that the comic industry has moved in the wrong direction?

It's a little heady and even egotistical to say but, Stefan, I'm on a mission.

Many cartoonists are the core of the audience for my books and I'm hoping they can see what a joy comics used to be, that FUN used to be the operative word in writing and drawing comics. And maybe they will be inspired by the work I'm presenting. That they be spurned on to turn the comic industry around from the dull, dismal, depressing and often violent pap that is called "comics" today.

Even the adventure stuff could be whimsical and fun.

If we must do more superheroes in comics, (and it'd be nice if we didn't - haven't we had enough?) could we have some Captain Marvels and Herbie Popkneckers and Sparky Wattses flying around in the panels?

If not I'd like to use this opportunity to call a moratorium on super heroes. Let's each and every one cease writing and drawing and publishing and talking about super hero comics from this moment forward. The world will be a better place!
Herbie Popkneckers aka The Fat Fury!
Your recent book, Felix the Cat's Greatest Comic Book Tails is another stunner. Do you think that by having so much all ages material available, younger audiences might discover these classic characters?
I hope so!

Felix was so damned cool and the artwork by Otto Messmer, Joe Oriolo and Jim Tyer on these "tails" so round, squishy and lovable. The stories are delightful for kids, obviously, but just as much by adults that appreciate great art and also the surreal kookiness of the freewheeling stories from the Felix Golden Age comics.
I love the current Felix crew at Felix the Cat Productions. Don Oriolo, who wrote the engaging intro and his team with Rod Ollershaw are keeping The Cat alive with all sorts of cool things. Felix is personally one of my very favorite books that I've done so far—that wonderful, wonderful cat!

Your book on Barney Google examines both the strip and the work of Billy DeBeck. How does a character, who was so beloved that he inspired a hit song in 1923 that was performed by some of the most popular entertainers of the time including The Andrews Sisters and Eddie Cantor, become forgotten by the masses?

That's a good question, Stefan.

I think the Barney Google strips are some of the greatest material I've reprinted, but I do get a lot of blank stares when I tell people, about it. Maybe Barney "died" because Billy DeBeck himself passed. Fred Lasswell, DeBeck's assistant, did a highly commendable job of carrying on the tradition. But even he concentrated almost exclusively on Barney's hillbilly cousin, Snuffy Smith--a direction maybe even DeBeck was going toward.


There are so many great comics forgotten now. It's interesting--when some new reprint project is announced, people say, "Well, that's the last of the great strips to be reprinted!"

But there were many, many great strips, now forgotten, which may never again see the light of day. It's sad and I do hope people discover the deep enjoyment and utter brilliance of Barney Google. Someone needs to discover the Barney Google book, some more major comics bloggers or The New York Times, or Boing Boing or SOMEBODY.







Barney Google, performed by Billy Jones & Ernest Hare

Barney Google is also considered to be the finest example of Big-Foot cartooning. What is Big-Foot cartooning and what about DeBeck's work sets his apart?

I agree with you on that. Barney Google is the finest example of Big-Foot cartooning!

But, what IS Big-Foot cartooning you ask?

I understand Leonard Starr coined the term.

He was doing realistic strips and was joking with his cartoonist golfing buddies about the Big-Foot humorous strips they drew--their anatomically incorrect characters with Big Feet. Of course, Barney Google had funny big feet, but also wonderful adventures--so you get the best of both worlds there.

By the way, Crumb has said how DeBeck was an influence on his Big-Foot cartooning of the '60s.

Big Feet on acid!

Dick Briefer started his work on Frankenstein, adapting Shelley's book and continued what many people consider to be comics' first ongoing horror feature. The character was reinvented as humorous character and then returned to its roots. Why did Briefer change the character so significantly and then go back to his original interpretation?
Craig closely proofreads his book, Dick Briefer's Frankenstein
Briefer was at the same time a trendsetter and also smartly followed trends. 


Frankenstein was the first regular horror series in comics--its existence inspired by the Karloff horror film trilogy. Then, Briefer followed his heart and did the humorous take. He said that it was his favorite version of the monster.
The humor eventually ran its course, but it was the publisher who wanted the character revived and tailored for the 1950s horror comics craze.

Of course, Dr. Wertham put a stop to that! Briefer hints that he wasn't really into the realistic horror comics, but there was sure something in him that did genius and spine-tingling horror art and tales.
Briefer's visual take on the character is pretty unique and in the book you even show some doodles of Alex Toth's using Briefer's design.  Why do you think it's so visually appealing?

The best part is the crazy placement of the nose! Briefer was the Picasso cubist of comics. The misshapen features work both when the character was a humorous Franky and a horrifying Frankenstein.
Christmas comics and certainly Christmas stories used to be a staple in American comics. Why do you think that Christmas stories attracted so many creators (including a large number of Jewish cartoonists)?

Well, not only the comics aspect, but Christmas in general obviously has both a religious and a commercial aspect. And it's colorful with Santa and has opportunities for both humor and heart. Cartoonists didn't often get an opportunity to do that many heartwarming tales--Christmas was a good time to do that. You'll see both laughter and love in The Great Treasury of Christmas Comic Book Stories!
Most of the stories in the book feature Santa Claus, but there are also several others, including a Bible story and an adaptation of A Christmas Carol. How did you go about choosing which stories to include?  

When I was a kid, I used to get the old Dell Giant Christmas comic books rolled up in my stocking.

It's was the first thing I ran for on Christmas morning. My parents probably could have just stopped there. Comics were as exciting to me as electric trains or shiny bicycles or sleek sleds.


The Dell Giants had a mixture of realistic and funny stories.  Wonderful eclectic treasuries. I set out to recreate those comics for me and my brand new son to read. Anyway, that's what my content goal was, variety – and my intended audience was me and Griffin.
Craig and Griffin
If others like both the comics by Walt Kelly, John Stanley and the non-Big Foot stuff as much as I do, too, then, great!  By the way, one reviewer said the book was like watching It's a Wonderful Life – how yule cool is THAT?

Upcoming you have books on the history of Archie, Bud Sagendorf’s Popeye and 1950s 3D Comics. How far ahead do you work and how do you research and assemble all of your material?
At any one time I am working on 7 or 8 books all at different stages. One or two of those books need to be finished shortly, another couple might be 6 months out. And there are others that won't see print for a year or maybe much longer.

Some books are easier – none of them are EASY – and some are very difficult.

The Milt Gross book was, for instance, many years in the making, I spent decades gathering the material, interviewing his assistant and family and other people who knew or worked with him. I traveled to the West Coast, the Mid-West and Washington D.C. doing research at institutions to gather information and rare art and ephemera.

The design of the book was very complicated to tell the complete Milt Gross story in text and visuals. But this has all paid off, Milt Gross has a book that tells about his fascinating life and has nearly 350 pages of his glorious comics goofiness. And cartoonists and fans around the world have been writing me to thank me for it.

Shane Glines, who I deeply respect as he is so incredibly talented, called it "The Book Of The Year"  on his blog.

Doing the Milt Gross book was very gratifying – grossly so!

What current cartoonists get you excited?

From a artistic viewpoint or are we talking about sexually?

Either way, I have to answer off the cuff: Shane Glines, R. Crumb, Craig McCrackenJohn Kricfalusi, Patrick McDonnell, Dean Yeagle, Johnny Ryan, Milo Manara, Al Jaffee, Jay Stephens, Jess Fink, Dan Parent, Richard Thompson, Danny Hellman, Colleen Coover, Bruce Timm, The Savanella Sisters, Ivan Brunetti, Matt Groening, Steve Ditko, Denis Kitchen, Kaz, Glenn Head, George Erling to name just a few.

Besides comics, what are your pop culture guilty pleasures?

I'm celibate.

I can't in any way imagine any of the current culture as pleasurable. I don't watch any TV or go to any movies or listen to any music or, God forbid, play any video games. This is what gives me pleasure, and in this order: family, friends and the funnies. And making books about the later.

What do you think makes comics such an appealing medium and do you see a time where it will reclaim its audience across all ages?

Yes, I do, most definitely. I try and have plenty of material for the hard-core comic fans in my books, but I'm constantly editing and refining each book to try and make it engaging for a general audience, not just the comic intelligentsia.  Dick Briefer's Frankenstein and The Great Treasury of Christmas Comic Book Stories are obvious examples.

The Milt Gross book was on the front page of the Jewish Forward. I've been interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air and Fox News' Red Eye about my books on cartoonists.

Lots of non-comics blogs have highly positively reviewed my books -- design blogs, erotic blogs, science fiction blogs, librarian blogs, mom blogs.

I'm proud and excited that I'm reaching the "civilians" with my work, besides appealing to comic geeks like you and me, Stefan!

Finally, finish this sentence, "Geek is the new…"

I didn't know there was going to be a test!

3 comments :

Adri said...

I adore Craig! One of the nicest guys. It's always good to see him at cons - and this is a fantastic interview. I particularly like his claim of abstaining from all things pop culture!

Jerry said...

Craig is the greatest - and his books are cool too... Great interview!

Blam said...

Great interview, indeed! Man, I've been waiting for a book on Dick Briefer's Frankenstein almost literally my entire life — since I read about it in Lupoff & Thompson's The Comic-Book Book way back when — and it's a beauty. I really have to hand it to Craig for being so eclectic, specific, and prolific in producing this stuff. Not only does he excavate treasures most of us have never seen, you spotlighted some books of his I didn't even know about. I'm only sorry it took me so long to get to read this and offer a belated thanks for shining this spotlight.