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Mark Newgarden:

Beyond The Pail

In the following interview I talk with Mark Newgarden and discuss We All Die Alone, a retrospective of Mark’s 20 year career in comics. The interview was conducted by email in December 2005.

The eldest of six kids, I grew up in a large, dysfunctional household, where forward movement was achieved slowly and circuitously, punctuated by chaotic happenstance. Staten Island in the mid-60s and 70s was more isolated and insular (if not inbred) than other parts of NYC.

Long after the Beatles went mod, I was attending the same elementary school as my mother, and was reading the same 1930s textbooks with painted illustrations of fathers in fedoras and cars with running boards. Nobody mentioned that these pictures didn’t correspond with the outside world. And that’s what riveted my attention on those bits of semi-voided pop culture: the denial. The drawings all exuded an intoxicating and unspoken wrongness and exotic antiquity. I was drawn to collecting what would be considered extremely marginal. Of course, when you are a kid, you don’t quite understand how truly marginal fake dog poop really is.

I really wasn’t a compulsive practical joker, I would save up and order an amputated bloody finger or imitation vomit and put them on display in my bedroom. Not much has changed.

There were always art books in the house and prints on the wall so "art" just seemed part of the landscape. The first to have an enormous influence on me was Precious Rubbish by TL Shaw. Shaw is known today only to a few devoted students of crackpot literature, but he is truly half-genius, half-madman and was dead on in his refusal to make value judgements between art and any other human activity. He illustrated his rants against the art world establishment with charts, graphs, dismissive and elaborately annotated correspondence from cultural institutions he petitioned, conceptual quizzes, minimally altered masterpieces and even gag cartoons. This was my introduction to the "art world".

In 1979, I went to the School of Visual Arts, mainly because it was the cheapest in NYC at the time, and Harvey Kurtzman (1) was teaching about cartoons there. I was a devotee of his, but I guess I found him more illuminating in the bar than in the classroom. After class, we’d hang out and he would regale us with fantastic stories. Art Spiegelman (2) also turned out to be an influential teacher.

Being at SVA was an important period for me, socially. I was in classes with talented and irreverent cartoonists like Kaz and Drew Friedman. There was a real intense energy in the air at the time; ‘the underground’ was coming up for air.

Through Spiegelman I got some work experience at Raw (3). It was exciting. Here was a fresh wave of people producing new kinds of comics that were informed as much by the medium’s history and other art, as by the broken ground left by the underground comics which preceded them.

The Pep Boys from Raw #2

In 1984, straight out of art school, I was working at the bottom of the totem pole at Topps (4) in their ‘New Product Development’ department. Practically everyone in that department had created one of the original subversive gum cards and stickers that I devoured as a kid. Topps was looking for some younger blood. I worked on all kinds of novelty product development chores, sketching up ideas for cards, candy containers, bubble gum comics, as well as being encouraged to pitch in with original ideas. One of the first things I submitted - a candy container in the shape of a cartoon bomb - made it into production and I got to stick around.

I was ecstatic to have a job creating disposable novelty crap like that. Topps decided to revive Wacky Packages -  an enormous hit for them in the 1970s - and I happily wound up on the project, working on ideas for products we could parody. Cabbage Patch Kid dolls had just been launched and were starting to get some cultural pop heat so naturally the Garbage Pail Kids became one of those Wacky Packages. By the time the series was ready for release, Topps was simultaneously pursuing a licence with the Cabbage Patch Kid folks to cash in on this huge fad.


When things didn’t work out, the CEO of Topps issued the edict to develop a ‘fuck you’ parody series, spinning off the Garbage Pail Kids Wacky Package. I wound up doing a lot of the rough drawings for the first series. Garbage Pail Kids became massive and the characters soon became filmstars. I still have yet to see a worse movie. I went to the ‘world premiere’ which was in one of the sleaziest Times Square theatres imaginable. I cajoled my friend Richard McGuire (5) in to coming with me because I was afraid to go there alone. I think we were the only people there except for someone who was living in the first row.

From 1988 to 1991, I drew a weekly gag panel for New York Press that ran in other alternative papers. I have my best ideas when the clock is ticking and a deadline gun is pointing at my temple. My goal was to do something completely different and unexpected each week. To avoid having a breakdown, I eventually developed a repertoire of various formats and features which I would rotate. But I was careful to keep experimenting, and tried hard to never let what I was doing become too pat.

I got my fair share of hate mail. It usually expressed some righteous indignation about the subject matter of my humour. No topic should be sacred in any medium of expression, but that freedom comes with a responsibility and a price; it’s much harder to make the dark, perverse or taboo, work in an interesting or original way.

B Happy

After they let me go, I played around with TV, film and multimedia projects, like B Happy, the first of the experimental Web Premiere Toons for Cartoon Network’s site in 1999. But, of late, I find myself drawn back to print projects, like Cheap Laffs my book on the art of the novelty item, and We All Die Alone. I really did miss the inkiness.

These days, I find things are much more restrictive, narrow-minded and pre-formatted than ever before. ‘Subversive’ popular entertainment has become just another genre or format with its own limiting rules and pre-conceived expectations. The corporate mentality is way more ingrained across the board.

For me, success as a cartoonist would probably be having a piece of my work induce just enough mirth to cause someone drinking a glass of milk to expel it nasally, yet retain enough presence of mind not to wipe up the spilt milk with my work. I’m still waiting for the ‘big time’. It was supposed to be here hours ago. Do you have a bus schedule?


REVIEW EXTRA:

Bow-Wow Bugs A Bug
Mark Newgarden & Megan Montague-Cash
Harcourt Books
$12.95,
Utterly absurd and adorable all at once, this is the first in a range of children’s/all-ages’ comic strip albums in which Bow-Wow, a new canine cartoon superstar, is born. Unlike his furry cousins Tintin’s Snowy, or Barnaby’s Gorgon, this bright orange pooch doesn’t speak. In fact the whole 48-page story is silent and that’s a big part of its pleasure, forcing you to pay close attention to the sharp, iconic, spot-the-difference pictures and delight in making sense from panel to panel, page to page. The co-star is a tiny bug, mostly shown as a little black dot, whom Bow-Wow trails all day from breakfast bowl through sidewalk trail back to bed basket, with some bizarre surprises en route. Like Bow-Wow on the cover, your eyes will open wide in amazement and amusement. And there’s more doggie laughs to come in Bow-Wow Orders Lunch and Bow-Wow Naps by Number in Fall ‘07 and Bow-Wow Hears Things and Bow-Wow Attracts Opposites in Spring ‘08. Be sure to check out the fun games, mini-animations and puzzles at the Bow Wow Books web-site.


Footnotes:
1) Harvey Kurtzman:
Creator of the original MAD comic book and later MAD magazine. <back>

2) Art Spiegelman:
Underground cartoonist, co-editor of Arcade and later Raw magazines, and author of Maus. <back>

3) RAW:
Influential oversized ‘graphix’ magazine co-created by Spiegelman and his wife Françoise Mouly in 1981. <back>

4) Topps:
Famous American family-run novelty candy and bubblegum card business. More info at Topps.com. <back>

5) Richard McGuire:
Designer, illustrator, animator, video-maker and member of the band Liquid Liquid. <back>

Posted: May 13, 2007

The original version of this interview appeared in 2006 in the pages of Dazed & Confused, the modern guide to music, fashion, film, art and ideas.

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Featured Books

Bow Wow Bugs A Bug
Bow-Wow Bugs A Bug
Mark Newgarden
& Megan Montague-Cash
(2007, Harcourt Books)

We All Die Alone
We All Die Alone
by Mark Newgarden
(2006, Fantagraphics)

Cheap Laffs
Cheap Laffs:
The Art Of
The Novelty Item

by Mark Newgarden
(2004, Abrams Books)