As someone worn out with the over-coloring and digital conformity of certain mainstream comics, Kurt Ankeny is a sight for sore eyes. Ankeny has spent most of the last year releasing his newest book, IN PIECES: SOMEPLACE WHICH I CALL HOME, a beautifully illustrated (and lettered) set of vignettes about Ipswich, Massachusetts, where he lived until recently. After Kurt Ankeny and I met at the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE) earlier this year, Kurt Ankeny sat down for a telephone interview covering his work (new and old), his hiatus from and return to comics, and his takes on the contemporary world of independent comics.

ComicsVerse: I figured we could just get right into talking about the new book, IN PIECES. Do you want to describe the project a bit?

Kurt Ankeny: Yeah, it’s a book of short vignettes about the town we lived in. We moved to Ipswich at the end of 2011, and we actually just moved away from there to Salem, Massachusetts, this year, about two months ago, so I was there for about five years.

When we first moved, we had moved to a community that was very friendly, and then we moved to Ipswich, which was a smaller town, but it felt very standoffish, and I had that sensation sort of confirmed by other people that lived in the area and had spent some years in Ipswich before. And so, anyway, because of this sensation—I used to walk back and forth to my studio every day, I’d walk from my apartment to my studio, about a mile—and I would see these random things just all over town and I started out with a painting series of these little vignettes of people doing everyday things that struck me more because of their lack of context than anything actually unusual about the activity that they were doing. But just out of context, they were odd to me; they were slightly off-key or whatever. And then, as I was getting back into comics, this feeling wouldn’t really let go of me, and I felt like there were some stories that I could tell that were not really suited for paintings, not really suited for a single image, so I started putting together these little one- and two-, occasionally three- or four-page, really brief little slices of life in Ipswich in the goals of making what I’m calling a “collage portrait” of the town.

So I did that over the course of about a year, and then started piecing it together and editing it down and adding some stuff and playing with the pacing because so many of the little vignettes are single stand-alone pages—and I’d occasionally get that one after another—but there’s not enough time for them to breathe in between flipping the page to the next one, so once I got it into a full graphic novel and made a mock-up, then I had to go back through and be like, “The pacing is odd here, so I need something to go in between that that breaks it up.” So I added these little abstract designs to give the reader sort of a meaningless visual and spacial break in between some of the stories that needed a little bit of time to linger in the mind.

But that was the project. The project was basically to create sort of portrait of Ipswich the town, and my sensations and my reactions to it. But in these tiny little vignettes, [I] just give you little pieces of it. So it’s almost like a cubist portrait in narrative form.

Kurt Ankeny In Pieces

CV: Yeah, you were talking about the first project you did regarding some of your observations in town, which was that series of paintings. And I know a significant portion of the work that you do is more like that type of work. I’m interested in the difference in approach—things you had to think about in working on each series and the differences between executing a painting series and putting together this current project.

Kurt Ankeny: Yeah, well, for The Ipswich Suite, which is what the series of paintings was called, I just kept finding things that intrigued me around town and that were interesting enough to turn into a frozen image, and I think for me the main difference is that for a painting you want that image to be—it has flow, but it has a self-contained flow, you want the eye of the viewer to circulate around. It’s a meditative sort of project to get somebody to take a look at an image and just keep looking at it and sending them around and around this square of colors is really the trick with paintings, so I would often—most of the paintings I don’t have any faces, and that’s because I would find that the faces are compositionally problematic, and they just draw the attention too much and you tend to fixate on a face. And while I wanted people to look at the image, and I didn’t want them to focus on just the faces of the people in them. And it also detracted from the general sense of alienation of the whole series of paintings. So most of those faces are either not there because the person is turned around or they’re purposely eluded so they’re not a compositional problem.

For comics, it’s a flow, but it’s a linear flow. You need the person to follow down the page; you need them to turn the page, and you need them to flow from one area of the page to the next so that they continue reading. So the shape of the flow that’s in a comic book versus a painting is due to the way that the audience interacts with you. It has different rules, so you have to keep those in mind when you’re composing a work of comics art to get that flow the way you want it to.

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CV: You had said that you’ve since left Ipswich. Were you working on this current book while you were still there?

Kurt Ankeny: I think I spent maybe the first two or three years while I was in Ipswich working on the painting series, and then the comic book was sort of the last year and a half.

CV: Did you ever feel like the fact you were working on these projects, the goal of which was to synthesize lots of different observations about the town and the community, informed your experience of living in the town?

Kurt Ankeny: I’m sure that it did to some extent. Like I said, I generally had this realization about the town before I embarked on either project, so my opinion about the town was sort of formed beforehand. But it definitely changed the way that I would walk around the town and observe the town, and it definitely—I think what it would do for me…I don’t think that my experience would have been any different, necessarily…but it heightened my memories, and it heightened the things that I paid attention to in the town as to whether or not they were useful for the projects.

And so, naturally, I saw a lot of other stuff that didn’t make it into the books or the paintings after five years of walking back and forth nearly everyday. But definitely, the things that I did pick out for the paintings were some of the things that impressed me the strongest. I’m not sure if the book affected those impressions very strongly—I feel like it must not have had too strong an effect because there were times where I would go at least a few weeks without seeing something that I wanted to put in the book, and then suddenly one would pop up.

So things just had to happen, and to me, it didn’t feel like I was manufacturing them. It felt more like they would happen, and it felt right for the book and so I’d put them in, and if they didn’t feel right, then I wouldn’t. If it didn’t seem like the right kind of image for the painting series, then I wouldn’t put them in either. So I feel like it used my memories of the place and my impressions of the place personally, but I don’t feel like I was actively editing my experience for myself as I was living there. It just—because you spend the time to distil and compress the experience into a couple of comic pages or a single image, naturally that memory is going to be stronger for you.

Kurt Ankeny In Pieces

CV: I also wanted to ask about some of the technical decisions you made with the book. You seem to work in pretty diverse styles across your different works through your painting series and also the comic work that I’ve seen of yours. Could you talk a bit about how you decided to go with the sort of simple abstracted style of this book?

Kurt Ankeny: Yeah, I really kind of wanted it to feel like a sketchbook, and when I am sketching generally, I tend to do so very linearly. I tend to just prefer a very plain HB pencil and just work in contour line most of the time. There are times that I will bust out something more colorful, but I find that very natural to me. I’ve always found really great draftsmen to be a profound influence, and I aspire to that level of draftsmanship.

One of the things that I found myself at odds within the comics world when I sort of gave it up for about ten years to pursue painting and came back to sort of refreshed was that I was still too young to appreciate the rougher looking stuff in the comics world. I didn’t have an appreciation for that, and it started to strike me that I find mainstream guys like Mike Mignola or Adam Hughes to be consummate artists and draftsman, but they’re some of the few people that can bring that level of perfection without turning it into just really dull static images. And what I find more intriguing is to create images that are much more selective about what they present in order to make the reader fill in the motion and fill in the details so that the images have more flow to them, they have more life to them, there’s more of a juxtaposition of curve and straight and clustering and sparse so that you get a pleasing effect on the page as opposed to a perfectly rendered 1957 Ford automobile. (Laughs.)

You know, I’m not really interested in that. And I love drawing from observation, but I’m not interested in giving a rendered image; I want to give you a sense of place, I want to give you some lively and interesting-to-look-at lines, and I want it to be like handwriting for myself.

And so that, I think, was one of the best things about taking a break from comics, that I was able to come back and bring a more complicated aesthetic sensibility to what I wanted to produce and what I found intriguing. Plus, I also find sometimes that I really want the linework of the images and the linework of the text and word balloons to be very similar, because I find that can do interesting things. And definitely in this project, I wanted the lines in the artwork and the words to be heavily dependent on one another.

CV: I think that’s probably the first thing that really caught my attention with this book. First of all, the lettering is just beautiful. Is that just your handwriting?

Kurt Ankeny: Yeah, it’s basically a slightly modified version of my handwriting.

CV: With some of the stuff that I read online, I’m just kind of scrolling through, and it’s the most cursory reading—it’s probably not very fair to the work itself, but with these pages the lettering is what caught my eye first, and I was struck by the strong relationship between the words and images, so for me it’s kind of validation as a reader to see that that’s something that you were working toward.

Kurt Ankeny: Yeah, certain projects call for that level of interdependence. Over the past few months, I’ve just done a couple of more traditional narrative stories that maybe don’t fit in that poetic space, and so I’ve taken a slightly more traditional approach to the word balloons and the art. Not that it looks like regular comics, but there’s more of a visual tension between the words and the pictures. But that’s just because it falls into that more traditional narrative and the stories are much more—they’re not mainstream comics but they’re mainstream fiction, I guess.

Kurt Ankeny In Pieces

CV: I’d like to talk a bit about your experience with the comics community. You talked about taking some time away from making comics. Was that also time away from reading comics? 

Kurt Ankeny: Sometimes, yeah. I’ve always had comics, but I definitely have pared my collection down several times. Once, just when we moved to Ipswich in 2011, I had quite a large collection that I just didn’t have space for any more comics, so I just sold them off. And some of those books, I’ve been going back to get back in my collection again. But I’ve definitely always had comics, and I’ve always been impressed by certain comics artists that I follow along with.

But, yeah, when I was heavily into painting, I needed to learn how to exercise those visual muscles as opposed to the ones that I was used to using for comics, and so a lot of that was about me learning how to paint and how to put together a painting and what the different rules were, as opposed to comics. So, yeah, during that period, there was definitely a stronger emphasis on painting on my part. But I think it was great for me because it definitely enriched what I was able to come back and put into my comics.

Before, it was How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. I’m old enough that there were comics on newsstands, and you could still get comics at the grocery store when I was young, but there definitely weren’t underground comics anywhere that I had access to. The closest thing I had was—I grew up in Milwaukee, and there was the F-5 Comics and Baseball Cards shop that was close by to me, and they had the SANDMAN books in hardcover, the original hardcover books, and they also had a comic called MOONSHADOW—I don’t know if anybody actually knows about it anymore, but it was watercolor painting by John J. Muth, and I want to say the writer was J.M. DeMatteis—and it was sort of a coming-of-age story with an alien sidekick and an interplanetary hopping adventure sensibility to it, but sort of melded with what to me felt like sort of an old hippy aesthetic. If you ever see it anywhere, you should browse through it.

CV: Yeah, I’m going to have to check this one out.

Kurt Ankeny: Yeah, it’s a really interesting book, and it was a whole graphic novel way before people were calling graphic novels “graphic novels.” I think it was done in the late ’80s or early ‘90s at the latest, but it was one giant hardcover volume, and it was 300 pages of beautiful artwork. I think John J. Muth is mostly doing children’s books these days, but it was a really beautifully done book, and so that was stuff that I had access to, but I didn’t have access to any of the really crazy underground stuff until I went off to college.

Then, I would see stuff like Kaz, and I would see Derf, and I would see THIS MODERN WORLD and stuff like that, and possibly Lynda Barry once in a while, though I didn’t pay much attention to it because I couldn’t get over the crazy art style. So I feel like getting away from the traditional comics was good in the way that it allowed me to expand my aesthetic appreciation for all the stuff that is coming at comics from a completely different direction. And most of the time it’s from a fine-art or pop or kitsch sensibility, and that’s perfectly legit and creates some really interesting stuff, too.

Kurt Ankeny In Pieces

CV: What’s the timeline like here?

Kurt Ankeny: I think I first became sort of a serious comics reader in middle school. I think my mom brought home a copy of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN with Todd McFarlane art in it, and that kind of blew my mind (laughs) in middle school and then after that I was following SPIDER-MAN when I could get it. I was doing some Batman around BATMAN YEAR THREE—there was some sort of follow-up on the David Mazzucchelli miniseries, and it was right around that time, and when I was really young, I definitely had the TRANSFORMERS comics, which I think we got as a clearance pack at Target or something way back in the day.

CV: Nice, that’s the best way to get those.

Kurt Ankeny: (Laughs.) Yeah, probably. I think we probably had a three-pack of the first three issues of the series, which was at that time like a four-issue miniseries because they were doing it in conjunction with the launch of the toys or something like that. And then they eventually expanded it, but by the time that I knew that it had become a full-fledged series, they were already on issue 20-something and the world had gotten so crazy I couldn’t catch up. (Laughs.) So then I had a couple of piecemeal issues, so I had those and I had SPIDER-MAN and BATMAN, and I definitely followed along with BONE and stuff like that.

I liked a lot of mainstream comics at the time, and I followed McFarlane and Jim Lee right over to Image when they formed up, and those are still some of my strongest comics memories. I used to just pour over the McFarlane art. But I always kind of felt like any technical training in art was lacking, so in about 2005, I started taking fine art courses at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington DC, and went heavily into painting for the next eight to nine years. Then, around 2014, I kept finding myself with the desire to create longer narrative works that didn’t really work as paintings, so I found Frank Santoro’s correspondence course online, and I took that and produced a 16-page comic called SALTWATER SNOW (that I later expanded to 32 pages). And that was my first comics work in about nine years or so.

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CV: So you came back, and it seems like things had probably changed a lot in the comics community in general. A lot of what Frank Santoro seems to do is building an online community and sharing people’s work. What’s your experience been with getting into the community and that sort of thing?

Kurt Ankeny: It’s definitely been interesting for me to plug into that community. When I took the correspondence course in 2014, Frank had done it several times before that, but it was basically you would take the correspondence course, and it would end, and toward the end of the course that I was working on—it was probably the end of February or something—I was asking Frank, “Can you just send me the emails of the people that I was doing the correspondence course with? Because what I’m really interested in is the community that you’re building here.” And he’s like, “You know, I’ve thought about it before, but I’ve never really done it. Let me see what I can come up with.”

And from that conversation, he decided to do the alumni blog, which is this blog that all alumni from the correspondence course have access to. And it’s sort of like a shop talk room where you can talk stuff up and get feedback. It’s active in spurts, but somebody checks in to make comments every once in a while, so that’s really nice. And from there, he started ramping up the Comics Workbook aspect of his community building, and he started the Kickstarter thing to purchase the house next door to his, mainly because the guy had told him they were going to put it on the market, and he was like, “This is what I’ve always wanted to do, and so I’d better snatch up the opportunity.”

So he did that, and he asked me to create a condensed version of the course in the FRANK SANTORO HANDBOOK FOR MAKING BETTER COMICS, and we put that together last spring, I want to say, in time for the Kickstarter—or it was actually an IndieGoGo. So that did quite well for us. I think it was sort of neck and neck with Simon Hanselmann’s TRUTH ZONE bootleg collection as the part that made the most money for Frank outside the people donating and different things. It was definitely one of the most popular rewards for the IndieGoGo campaign. And that was fun for me because it was a chance to rehash the things that Frank had taught in his course. Frank likes to spit out ideas in ways that force the students to draw the connections on their own, and that works really great one-on-one, but that of course doesn’t work very well when you’re trying to make it a condensed version, so Frank let me take what I’d learned and spit it back out on the pages as to what I thought was important. And he would either say “yea” or “nay” or “tighten this part up a bit” or “more pictures, fewer words,” but basically it was pretty free rein, and he was pretty happy with what we produced and it’s been doing well for us.

So that was my biggest entry point into the comics community. And I’m not saying I really had any influence on what Frank is doing. My time with him and his ramp-up into full-on comics guru just happened to coincide. But connecting with people on Tumblr and realizing a vibrant comics community is going on there is one of the things I’ve really enjoyed. I’m realizing that the indie comics community is becoming this strong punk underground. It’s definitely become much hipper.

CV: (Laughs.) Yes.

Kurt Ankeny: I’m not sure if it’s just the general mainstreaming of geek culture or if it’s just the fact that comics just had a new infusion of blood from people who grew up with manga as opposed to superheroes, but it’s definitely become a much more vibrant place where, when I was first coming up, there were mainstream comic shows, and there were shows that had some mainstream stuff in there—you couldn’t avoid that—but there was this mixture of this sort of ‘50s sci-fi nostalgia, and there was some underground stuff like Crumb. But the smaller shows were nostalgia shows. They weren’t the comics creator shows you see these days.

I know it’s a confluence of all sorts of things, like printing technology, and being able to share things online, and the fact that we have Risograph printers. But it’s definitely become a completely different enterprise since I walked away from it in 2005 to when I came back to it. And I haven’t been back to SPX yet, but just being to all the different shows across the country that are like SPX that didn’t exist in 2005—and even SPX back then compared to what indie comics shows are like now, they’re different animals. So it’s interesting to see the comics community change and become not only something more interesting and more committed to creating new comics but something that’s more inclusive. It’s very punk in the best sense of the word. We don’t need the establishment to what we want to do, and people are just going to do it, and because nobody is restraining them, they’re doing great things.

Kurt Ankeny In Pieces

CV: Yeah, definitely the format of how things get shared and people celebrating other people’s work online and the total independence of everything has led to what I think is some really interesting comics.

Kurt Ankeny: Right, you’re getting all these people who would never get a shot anywhere from somebody that was paying the bills with an eye toward making money. But when you get these people who are just doing it for the love of it or just making comics because they have to make comics, you’re going to get great people doing that. Unfortunately, it’s nearly a zero-sum game when it comes to money—there’s not a whole lot floating around—but there’s a lot of cool stuff coming out despite that.

CV: Yeah, that leads into the last part I wanted to get into. Are there things that you’ve read recently or are excited about reading that other people should be getting into?

Kurt Ankeny: Yeah, I have a stack of comics here that I picked up at CAKE. Right here in my stack, I have BROKEN PANELS that I picked up from Lane Milburn. I have HAX from Lale Westvind. Her art style, I don’t know if you’ve seen it before, but it’s like Kirby in a blender. I really enjoy that. I read through it, and I have to spend so much time to decipher it, which is great because usually you flip through a comic and it’s done. To be able to deliver something that you really need to peruse over what’s maybe 24 pages at the maximum is really nice. And I also picked up a couple of comics from this indie publisher down in Mexico called Joc Doc, and I think the author here is Apolo Cacho, and he’s got this real art influence. It’s very sort of psychedelic, fractured images, there’s definitely influences from Lyonel Feininger, and there’s definitely stuff from George Grosz. So I’m really looking forward to delving into these in a deep way. Those are cool. I’m trying to think of what else I picked up. Oh, Ben Passmore’s book that’s been hitting Tumblr hard, YOUR BLACK FRIEND. He gave us a copy at CAKE, and that’s a great read: really, really honest and important. And actually, my tablemate at CAKE was Emi Gennis. She makes sort of non-fiction comics. Like, she has one on trepanation, and then she also takes the Wikipedia “Unusual Deaths” pages and turns them into comics—

CV: (Laughs.) Nice.

Kurt Ankeny: —which is as comedic and horrifying as you’d imagine. And she just recently wrote a little autobio piece about a friend that had committed suicide called BASELINE BLVD that she thought was super, super depressing and I felt was—to my mind it didn’t really sink below melancholic, which—I think she was afraid it was darker than she wanted, but I thought it hit just the right tones. So I recommend that. There were all sorts of good stuff, but those are some of my favorites in front of my face at the moment.

CV: Great, and I also like to ask about entry points into your work and what people should look for down the road. 

Kurt Ankeny: Yeah, most of my stuff is stand-alone short stories, so like SALTWATER SNOW is a 32-page comic that’s standalone, and I’ve got an even shorter piece that’s called A BOMB that’s only three bucks because it’s a little tabloid newspaper printed piece, which is also self-contained. And I’m hoping to have two more out this fall. One is called GULLS, which is currently available in the third issue of ZONA being published by Comics Workbook—just sort of an anthology of people who are alumni of the course—and one that is called DARK DESERT DAWN that will be out at the end of September.

CV: Well, I just want to say thanks again for taking the time. I’m really looking forward to the book as it keeps coming out and then hopefully in print form.

Kurt Ankeny: What I’m hoping to do is make it this very intimate little book, and doing nice paper and putting French flaps on the soft cover and printing it on uncoated paper with metallic ink so that it almost looks like the graphite that it was made in. I want the book to stand out as a quiet, meditative piece, and I want its format to reflect that. I’m talking to the printers now, but I’m crossing my fingers that the schedule will allow me to have IN PIECES: SOMEPLACE WHICH I CALL HOME printed and ready for its debut by Cartoon Crossroads Columbus in mid-October. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk about my work, Jake!

You can find more of Kurt Ankeny’s work at his website and on his Tumblr, and you can support Kurt Ankeny on Patreon or by preordering his newest book, IN PIECES

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