Johnny Damm, “The Outcast (Tomb of Terror # 14)”
JOHNNY DAMM is the author of three chapbooks, The Domestic World: A Practical Guide (Little Red Leaves, forthcoming), Your Favorite Song (Battle Stories) (Essay Press, 2016), and The Old Man’s Illustrated Library: Issues # 36 & # 5 (No Press, 2015). His newest book Science of Things Familiar is currently available for preorder, and his other projects can be seen at johnnydamm.com.
ON IMAGES AND TEXT
I’ve read comics as long as I can remember. My mother is a poet and my stepfather a comics scholar, so both poetry and
comic books helped form the vocabulary of my childhood and adulthood.
When I started work on my first comics project, The Old Man’s Illustrated Library, I initially thought quite a bit about visual poetry, which itself has a pronounced relationship to comics (the work of Alvaro de Sá shows this clearly), and works such as Tom Phillips’ classic A Humument that write into or over preexisting texts.
From this project on, my goal has been to present images—scavenged from vintage comics—in parallel, rather than blended with, the text. Image and text are given equal weight in my work and interact without completely integrating with one another. With The Old Man’s Illustrated Library, the rules were simple: I paired visual elements taken from old issues of Classics Illustrated—comic book adaptations of canonical texts—with text that describes the authors of the original texts as elderly men living alone in small apartments.
Herman Melville does jumping jacks, Daniel Defoe cuts jalapenos, etc.
Since then, I’ve moved more towards essay, a blending of art and criticism, with an extended project on the role race (or, more accurately, the racial imaginary) played in the creation of music genres during the early American recording industry. With that project, Your Favorite Song (Battle Stories), the visuals are built from sound effects taken from old war comics.
ON PULP, CONTEXT, AND FAILURE
My newest project, which includes “The Outcast (Tomb of Terror # 14),” has the working title Failure Biographies. The subject here is ‘failed’ artists, particularly those like the Baroness who were exiled or forgotten from the historic avant-garde. Last year, I was given a stack of decaying, coverless pulp comic books, most dating from 1952, that otherwise would have been thrown away. I’m now working exclusively with these comics—mainly old sci-fi and horror stories. The other primary visual element of the series comes from old Farm Security Administration photographs taken during the Depression.
With this series, I’m in conversation with quite a lot, including the critical/academic works I draw heavily from and the creative works of the various artists I’m discussing.
Whenever possible, I also pull from these artists’ own words: my speech balloons tend to be direct quotation. And of course, I’m also in conversation with the original comics.
In terms of broader context, I should mention Jess’ comics cut-ups, Tricky Cad. Also (glancing at my shelves): Max Ernst’s (graphic) collage-novels; Alison Knowles’ section of The Four Suits; Benjamin Patterson’s Methods and Processes. As for current indie comics artists, there are a number whose work I think has a (generally unremarked) kinship to poetry: Michael Deforge, Gabrielle Bell, Cole Closser (who works in old comics pastiche), and Eleanor Davis come to mind. There are remarkably fluid boundaries between disciplines—more than typically credited, I think—and this is not even to mention the growing subset of poets who claim the mantle of “poetry comics.”
Regarding blendings of tradition, I’m also quite interested at the moment in the work of the artist Adam Pendleton, who sometimes refers to his work as Black Dada. The way he pulls from both the historic avant-garde (including Language poetry) and current and past black protest movements feels particularly vital to our moment.
As with the artists I’ve named (and numerous more), I try to work between specific disciplines and mediums: it’s a rich space for creation.
Want to be considered for future installments of The New Comics? Send your work to Comics Curator Keith McCleary via the Entropy submissions page.