Joe Williams (aka Joe Willy) is an underground cartoonist and illustrator, and lead artist for Red Flag Publishing. Unabashedly individualistic in his well-conceived philosophies and spirit, he’s been quietly churning out some of the best new comics ignored by Diamond and the mainstream. From comedy to mystery to erotic to the politically-charged, his work is as addictive as a breath of fresh air. Read on, and feel rightly ashamed for missing out thus far on some true originality. I did.
Joe, do you believe that a person in general, and an artist in particular, is the product of their environment?
Totally. I think where you come from shapes you as a person, which is what shapes you as an artist. I don’t really think you can help be anything but who you are. I think the more people tap into what makes them unique the more they are able to be artists worth listening to.
I come from a small town in southwest Michigan. My family was probably kind of lower middle class but it was a good home and family life in most ways. Not to say the upbringing and genetics didn’t turn me into a depressed and insecure narcissist, but in many ways I never really desired to push as hard as some people who may have needed to escape their situation and thus never found an enclave of creative people to connect with and be pushed by. I realize now that I may have isolated myself from people living an artist’s existence. Plus, being in the country means having to have a car which means having to have a job and it’s easy to get caught in an endless loop. Not to mention that my contacts with any fine arts as a child were few and far between- my family preferring Hee-Haw and Benny Hill to Monty Python and Richard Pryor.
I think in other ways my rural upbringing kind of put me closer to nature, even though I was an indoors, nerdy bibliophile, TV junkie and comic book addict. I feel like my work is always more sparse and there’s a little less people and energy than a lot of artists I see. I know I tend to not like drawing cars and buildings where I really dig anything organic and flowing.
Luckily, my small town got a used book store and comic book store when I was probably around 11 or 12. It was run by an old hippy that was pretty much exactly like Tommy Chong and there would be Playboys right by the door. This all surely terrified the elders and parents of my small, conservative town. My parents would let me go there when they were in the greasy spoon coffee shop probably just to get me out of their hair for awhile and also to keep me from ordering food. Those weird 70s Marvels in long boxes would just have me drooling even though most of them I never got to read and now mostly wouldn’t care to. Contest of Champions, Defenders, Micronauts, the Spider-Mans where he had extra arms and webbing under his arms and was always fighting Morbius the Living Vampire or Man-Wolf. Also at the time I would constantly see Frank Miller’s Daredevil stuff and it was just too weird and different but there was something about it which I knew was good. But something about his actual linework always seemed ugly. It was only later on I realized I was right and that he was an ace designer and storyteller but not a great draftsman. If I’d have been just a little older I could have started buying Vaughan Bodé and the later bits of the underground. That would have to come later. I did buy a shit ton of Rom: Spaceknight which was so very depressingly sad and also scary to me. The Wraiths from Rom scared me as much as The Shining or Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Rom himself was like Peter Parker at his mopiest, but also lost in space- you can’t get more angst-ridden in 70s Marvel Comics than Rom!
I even feel like time affects you as an artist- the time you grew up in and age of your parents and the people around you. It changes what decade you are obsessed with or relate to as my dad was a product of more of the early 60s and late 50s while many of the parents of my friends were from the age of hippies and Woodstock. Needless to say I had a much more strict upbringing. I grew up right before the Internet destroyed everything about the way the world I grew up in worked. Not to mention my parents were 40 when they had me and a large chunk of my childhood was spent living with my grandparents. Not to mention two elderly great aunts who lived next door to us, one of which owned a nursing home that was the next house down from there. I spent a lot of time as a kid in and around a nursing home. Across the road from there was a former church that was starting to basically rot and fall down- in fact it was our neighborhood church as a kid until it closed. Something that really confused me as a kid was when my friend’s scary motorcycle-driving outlaw uncle moved into the new addition and the parsonage- the small house next to it. Religion and death are two big themes in my life and I never really thought about living next door to both as a kid until now. That church basement had a skull in it that really freaked me out- maybe it was for a production of Hamlet? I just remembered thinking a lot about why the hell it would be there- I can’t remember ever asking or getting a satisfying answer. Also, I bought a bunch of Savage Sword of Conans at that guy’s garage sale a couple years after he moved in- early stuff and he had like every one but I couldn’t afford to buy them though I did get a nice haul.
Fellow ROM fanatic! Such a shame that book will never see a return, as the character is long-lost in licensing limbo land. Just another reason to prefer small press these days, right? Or would you be one waiting for the chance to write X-men or draw Batman if given the chance? Does the nature of your beliefs rely on the genre, or medium?
It used to always be a dream to work for the “Big 2.” When I was 16 I was a huge Marvel zombie and I was convinced that I would graduate high school and move to New York to draw Spider-Man, but that same year I bought Hate #1 and Fabulous Furry Break Brothers #4 along with an issue of The Comics Journal and my tastes in comics quickly changed.
I suppose in some ways I’d still like the money and name recognition that comes with getting a job with Marvel or DC, but they’ve made it harder and harder for someone with morals to want to pursue it. That said, I work for a small, family run company that isn’t any less evil, just smaller and seemingly less able to do harm; but I really think besides scale there’s no difference. Probably at this point I don’t see them offering so I don’t have to worry about the moral conundrum!
Who are some writers and artists outside of comics that have affected you, for better or worse?
I know as a young kid it was the World Encyclopedia set my family had which I think my grandparents bought for us. I would actually just sit and read it, probably as close as you come to surfing the web back then. But particularly reading the section on Greek mythology. I’m sure that the section must have mentioned that the Greek myths were basically metaphors for various human behaviors and emotions. I think not long after it occurred to me that the Bible stories I was reading at the same time were just maybe slightly more evolved (or not- depends on your view) versions of the idea of filtering lessons though omnipotent beings and legendary warriors, wizards and wise men. As a kid I could see the connections between myth, religion and superheroes- though part of that because Stan Lee on his soapbox was telling you how high-falootin’ his stories were while also telling you what a humble guy he was just trying to steal money from dumb kids.
Later on it would be reading the Raven in maybe sixth grade. Edgar Allan Poe’s stories with his love of language and also ability to absolutely nail down the interior monologue of a madman. I read a ton of Conan novels and was into fantasy enough that I read the whole Dragonlance series. Once I hit 16 or 17 I was starting to delve into the underground culture more and reading Robert Anton Wilson, The Doors of Perception, and Terence McKenna- things like that. I was always more into non-fiction since I could never find enough writers that satisfied my thirst for high art and also my love for the lowbrow. I read a bunch on Eastern mysticism and Gnosticism. I was really into philosophy but it starts to get too into eating it’s own tail for me after a while. Probably around 19 or 20 I started to get really interested in Joseph Campbell and people who tied strands of culture together and started re-telling a story that has been lost in modern culture.
I remember at the time it came out, really being influenced by Camille Paglia’s “Sexual Personae” which broke down the world into two strands- the Dionysian vs the Apollonian. It’s been a long time since I read it so I don’t know how it would still hold up for me, because I know even then certain parts of her writing rubbed me wrong. At the time, to see people digging into the hidden messages and trends in art and culture, looking at sub-text and the psychological motivation behind it, was important for me. I also liked her idea that the march of progress isn’t always for the best and in fact society might be so fucked up because the Apollonian impulse is to squash anything Dionysian, turning serpents into Devils and women into witches and succubi out of fear and hatred of the natural world.
How did Red Flag come about? Had you ever considered flying solo in the self-publishing world as a writer-artist, or was there blackmail involved from that mysterious owner of Red Flag Publishing that compelled you to partner up?
Red Flag Publishing started when I first read a column written by the assistant editor, Jim Hitchcock, at the weekly Battle Creek shopping guide published by the company I worked for which was in a different town. It was a damn fine piece of writing and so were a few other columns he wrote over the next couple of years. One of the great ones was when he perfectly illuminated the hidden messages of Rankin and Bass’ stop motion Christmas special, Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer. So when the editor retired Jim started coming over on production day to work at the main branch in the small town where I live. We hit it off extremely well and would pretty much just spend all day Wednesday talking. I had a new child and new marriage at the same time his marriage was falling apart and his kids were in their teens. We’d end up brainstorming lots of ideas and started talking about what to do with them.
Jim wasn’t really as big a comics guy as me but he’d read a bunch in the past and always liked them, so I started giving him a bunch of stuff to read. I’d been dreaming of being a pro comic book artist my whole life. We both were really interested in politics and serious issues and art that had something to say, and I felt like there really wasn’t a lot of stuff around like that any more. We knew we both liked stuff that was a little dark and edgy and there just wasn’t a lot of what we wanted to read being done in comics.
He eventually divorced and started dating women, mostly online, who were all a caricature of each other in that each had been married and divorced and was looking for “Mr. Right” as advertised and any slight problem they experienced with any minor attitude or opinion you held became a “red flag” that basically meant the nascent relationship needed to be snuffed out in the crib. So, it became a hilarious running gag and at that same point he’d been writing scripts for me that I would start to lay out and never really finish.
While surfing online, I ran into a contest for a publisher called Viper. They were looking for crime noir, dark fantasy or horror stories I think with maybe like a six page limit or something that would be included in one of their books as a backup. Jim gave me a script called “Mr. Smith” about a hit man working for God. It was pretty good but we lost to a story about a scary teddy bear. So we decided to create another story and package them together in an anthology that we would print where we worked and take to a convention.
Sadly, the closest large convention to us at the time was the Wizard World show in Chicago so we went to that and spent hundreds of dollars on a table and a hotel room for the weekend and maybe sold $20 of comics. It seemed to us like comics was just a little nerd version of a high school dance where despite being told constantly that it was a friendly scene where people would help each other, I felt like everyone was just trying to find a better looking partner to dance with and wouldn’t be seen talking to anyone on their level and preferably one above them. I found the people at Wizard World to be mostly cold and unwilling to even glance at what you were doing except for a few people who seemed to really like my art, but didn’t bother to buy the book, or if they did they didn’t bother to track us down online later to give us any feedback. I remember seeing two sort of up and coming indie guys doing stuff similar to us, though more advanced in their careers, who I’d seen hanging around on Warren Ellis’ The Engine and whose table was right behind ours and I couldn’t get one of those guys to say “hi” or acknowledge me all weekend. It was pretty frustrating. I was hoping it would be an investment and we’d make some connections but we came home with almost nothing to show for it. It could have been worse as I met a guy who’d won a mini-comics award and had flown out from the West Coast who’d sold less books than we had.
Jim quickly pissed away every dime he got in the divorce settlement on printing the comics and also starting up a business selling poison dart frogs and other exotic animals. In the mean time, we’d had a Slovenian cartoonist, Matjaz Bertoncelj, who’d edited the anthology Stripburger send us some of his stuff, looking for an American publisher. We really loved his dark comedic take on funny animals during the Inquisition and Crusades so we did another volume of the Red Flags anthology, filling it out with another story drawn by me about the death of King Tut and a story drawn by another local artist which was a zombie story with a cool twist, that we decided would be print-on-demand, which was just starting to become a thing. We went through Ka-Blam which seemed to be the best place at the time. But with no money to hit the convention circuit or to market the thing we were kind of hoping that the Ka-Blam/Indy Planet site would help move some books but we haven’t sold one god damn copy through them and their useless site. And here we are today… giving our comics away for free and tweeting about it, hoping someone will notice.
Maybe I shouldn’t spoil the myth, but Biff Humble is Jim Hitchcock‘s Tyler Durden. He came up with him in college as a sort of bet that picking up girls was mostly a matter of faking confidence. I don’t know how well it worked but I know Jim says that it did help. The character would be brought up from time to time in our discussions and when we decided to publish I had mentioned I always liked how Paul Pope had done the “fake it ’til you make it” thing by inventing Horse Press and a publisher when in fact he was just a kid publishing his own work. Jim gets to play Stan Lee on his soapbox hawking our books without feeling like an ass since neither one of us are aggressive self-promoters, much to our downfall. Then again, Biff mostly seems to appeal to Viagra and webcam spammers so I don’t know how much good he does selling our books!
Jim keeps telling me I have such a way with words I should just write my own stuff, but I find I almost have too many ideas, and if I’m not collaborating it’s too hard for me to decide what to work on. Besides, with so little success to show for the work I’ve put in I prefer mostly to collaborate with him because I enjoy working with him and I think he’s a good enough writer to be working in the business and thought I could help him while helping myself. I do often think I’d like to work on something more personal and possibly do a web comic. I’d actually sort of given up the idea of trying to do comics but recently Jim wrote a script for Matjaz which was a parody of Animal Farm and exposed the bullshit of average citizens having to endure austerity measures in Europe (or cuts in Social Security and other public spending and “entitlements” here in the U.S.) because the rich bankers looted the stock market. It actually got a little attention and along with some other things in my life like starting to do improv I kind of feel like maybe I might be ready to try this again. I just don’t know what shape that might take at this point. I’ve done some political cartoons in the past and from doing improv I do feel like maybe my work has lacked because when I work on Jim’s script I’m trying to draw too realistic as his scripts have a strong filmic vibe to them. I think the long-term plan would be to find other artists to draw his scripts and I can do my own thing as writer-artist, but we still collaborate on coming up with ideas and writing.
Where did London Fog come from? Your use of grayscales really brings out the noirish atmosphere, but it’s really an anti-establishment story, dealing with very violent imagery. Could this be a long term thing?
I should also add here something I failed to mention, which was that our second anthology book- Red Flags vol.2 #1- was basically us doing an updated version of EC’s horror books. It’s an anthology of short horror stories with twist endings that all had some sort of sociopolitical theme. We didn’t do an arch parody but wanted to sort of keep the structure of it. Too many people have just gone gonzo with what they think made EC unique which is always the outrageous violence and schlocky humor but I think it’s the seriousness of the stories for the time and the way they also entertained but were culturally aware and pushing the moral envelope in a way that was a lot like the Twilight Zone- you just don’t see that seriousness in culture nowadays without eleven layers of irony and faux naivete or some other device. I think you have a relevant medium not by aping the most obvious and superficial aspects of the genre but by keeping the core of what makes it powerful as an entertainment vehicle and adding to it the facts of a new time and place, a new style.
The story London Fog was really developed from the creation of the anti-heroes we introduce in it, Mister Makabre and Doktor Gore. They were inspired by something I came up with around the age of 16 or 17 and that was just a random page in my sketchbook, where I didn’t usually do narrative stuff, and I just came up with this one page where a ratty superhero looking guy and his kid sidekick were in some girl’s house just kind of staring at her. There were hints that maybe she had powers and they had come to find her but it’s just this one-off creepy thing. I think I called it Dr. Gore and Mr. Macabre or something not far off. So it had always been an idea in my head to do these two Satanic-looking superhero characters who didn’t really have powers and were kind of anti-heroes. I had sort of done another random page for them maybe eight years ago, and I found out about the European character Fantomas and read up on how that turned into all these other similar books like Satanik and Killing. So I kind of sent a big packet of info to Jim about that whole idea and I really dug into those books for a little while and tried to find what I could about that whole genre because it seemed alien to me. In America the biggest anti-heroes were always killing small time crooks. Heck, I think Batman is actually kind of a tool since he’s often a billionaire kicking the shit out of small time criminals. Jim opened a small retail business the day the markets crashed, starting with Lehman Brothers and then on like a chain of dominoes and then saw it all blamed on the little guys- people who had no choice but to buy in an over-inflated housing market with ridiculous mortgages. In retrospect it seems obvious to just make a vigilante that wants to kill the rich. We were creating this story right as the Occupy movement was picking up steam and felt like we were speaking to that same anger at how the responsible parties have gotten off easy, if not made an outright profit from the turmoil, while everyone else has suffered.
So, we kind of actually have this elaborate dystopian sci-fi premise for an actual series with these two characters. But Jim came up with the idea for doing it more as a classic short horror story to introduce the characters and make it very Victorian and throw in all these references to Poe. It’s a pretty claustrophobic story. I always try to play up the rhythms of Jim’s stories because they can have very deliberate timing to them. In a way the scripts are hard to read for me because he’s visualizing everything on the page like Alan Moore. So I have to really digest all this stuff he’s seeing which is great because he’d be a really good director and he breaks down a story very well. I’m always surprised by how fast he can write this really elaborate script with all this cross cutting dialogue. So when I get a script I always have my own ideas on stuff and I’ll blow out certain scenes to pace them slower because he’s very dense and I like letting stuff breathe and do a little more with the art, since it’s a comic, and try to add a graphic element to it. And he lets me have the final say on that because he trusts my comic book instincts and I think it makes for a stronger work with both people’s sensibilities hopefully adding to each the other’s.
If financial concerns were eliminated, what other stories would you like to tell? What genres draw you in now, as an adult?
That’s a good question and hard to answer. The easy answer is I have lots of old ideas I would love to be able to see to completion if I knew they’d have any audience and be worth the insane amount of work it takes to do comics. I have a few ideas close to my heart that I would love to do myself and release as serialized web comics and then print if there was enough of a demand.
The work I want to do and the work I respond to most is stuff that explores states of consciousness and what it means to be alive, stuff that connects the dots of myth, religion and culture- big picture stuff. But I like stuff that can discuss the big issues while also nailing details of real life- to me that’s what makes something Art. I also really love well-done satire and it’s weird to me that there’s so much great comedy in the world right now almost everywhere except comic books. I think almost every genre in comics seems under-explored and that every genre can be used to whatever ends you need to use it.
The one thing I’d like to do is be able to be happier about my stuff and just let it be, instead of over-working it. If I could get over that hump I’d probably produce work faster and be happier about it and agonize less over it, which in turn would only speed me up more and maybe I could start getting some of the many ideas I have out into the world. I think I’m closer than ever because of recent events to making that happen. I recently took an improv workshop which actually was sort of a casting call for a group forming at a local theater, but I had just wanted to try it and it was free so I figured it was a one-shot deal. I’d always been a huge comedy fan but never a performer of any kind, so despite thinking it would be cool to try stand-up or improv it just never seemed like something I could make the leap into. After the workshop I ended up getting called back and after call-backs asked to join the group. I find the philosophy of improv to actually be a great recipe for living and pretty close to a sort of Buddhist take on life which is to accept what you’ve been given and to say “yes, and…” to everything. Also, the experience of performing in my first show was pretty liberating. I feel like I’ve become much more confident in my subconscious and my ability to just do things and trust they’ll be good and that things will work out. I’ve always been pretty insecure and negative so doing improv has really helped make me feel better about myself and my abilities. And I’d really like to try to draw a comic that was stream of consciousness- I always liked comics like “A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron” which you could tell were just being made up as the artist went along. I really love the work of Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar and those guys make me want to just draw it and leave it alone and move on the next panel.
And there is always that next panel to get to, right? Thank you for talking with the LP, Joe. Your work is phenomenal, and anyone who doesn’t keep their eyes on independent talent and mindsets like yours should’ve had a V8. Rock the hell on, good sir.
The pleasure was all mine. It was nice to vent and I can’t say how much I appreciate you finding my work and helping to highlight it. I really dig the site and your writing and look forward to talking again soon.