Sam Alden On Sad Tumblr Teen Comics And Portland's Seething Rage
We talk to comic artist Sam Alden about letting go of a huge, ambitious 200-page graphic novel that took him four years, working on Adventure Time, and the strange day jobs artists take.
If you asked me about my favorite new comic artists, my entire face would probably split open, and a goblin's claw would worm out of my face-hole to dangle a placard that says READ SAM ALDEN.
When I first approached Eighth Grade, I wasn't a charitable reader of graphic novels about suburban teens. But he totally won me over. Like the best TV and short story writers, Sam has an uncanny ability to orchestrate morally embarrassing situations. A closeted boy watches with longing as his friend abandons him for a girl. An athletic bully dates a frumpy girl to spite his ex, and the whole school churns like blood in shark-infested waters. Everyone gets to plead their humanity in this ensemble cast, and there's a sort of Winesburg, Ohio scale to the town: You glimpse a community of worried parents behind the kids too. You never get the sense, though, of a lofty narrator pissing on miserable ants below, or a grunge god grinding axes through a Mary Sue. Sam gets you to love even his most ruthless characters.
He's since written an Adventure Time episode, released a slew of short stories, won an Ignatz Award, and been selected for the Best American Comics anthology. He also announced that he's not working on Eighth Grade anymore. I've been a big fan of his newer comics too, but wanted to bother him, anyway, about what it's like to begin — and let go of — a project that he's worked so hard on for more than four years.
When did you begin making comics? And putting them online?
Sam Alden: For me, those were sort of two separate events. I've drawn comics since I was tiny, but I went through high school unaware of any comics scene on the internet. I wasn't on any social media. I used the internet for email, and that was it.
And then I had a desk job — my first corporate desk job — right after high school, when I was 19.
Oh my god was that a weird job. It was this industrial shredding factory that made these gigantic shredding machines for recycling plants, and my job was to make a monthly commercials for them, call up Costco to get 100 shopping carts from them to dump in this shredder.
SA: It was called Watch It Shred. It's had brief moments of YouTube celebrity. Just videos of people dumping cars in shredders. Bowling balls. Coats. It's kind of weirdly addictive in this 10-year-old boy way. So I was their video editor. And while I was at that job I had a lot of time to be bored and wonder what I was doing with my life. So I just made a Blogspot of Post-It Note doodles I was making at work, of squids and stuff. That was my only internet presence for about three years, and then I eventually went to Tumblr.
There are all these comic artists now who've known each other from DeviantArt since high school, but I came late to that game.
So you moved to Tumblr, and was that where Eighth Grade started?
SA: Eighth Grade I've been drawing forever. I had 100 pages done before I decided to put it online. My other method was to drop off five copies of my comics at Floating World comics in Portland, which was great, but I'd check back every month and they would have sold three and I'd be like, I'm MAKING it!
So how did it eventually find its audience?
SA: Initially it was like shouting into a void. But then I put it on Tumblr and, I don't know, I owe pretty much everything in my career to Tumblr. It has this vast network of sad teenagers who are ready to respond to my sad teenager stories.
I'm a really sad teenager.
SA: Me too!
What made you want to tell this particular story, though?
SA: In many ways middle school was the most messed up part of my life, and I had stuff to parse from that. I wanted to write about middle school since we're more familiar with the classic high school narrative of people moving from adolescence to adulthood. The structure of that story is so familiar that it's built into our consciousness. But a middle school narrative is about characters leaving childhood into complete anarchy, when kids don't know how to deal with bullies yet.
One of the things I really admire about your comics is the honesty about how passive-aggressive all of us are. Like when people feel abandoned, they never come right out and say it. Maybe because I personally identify with passive aggression a lot.
SA: Me too. I grew up in Portland. That's the culture there. People in Portland are actually seethingly angry. Like if they set the glass of water down in mid-conversation and walk away, it's like, oh my god—
They hate me.
SA: They're so angry!
Like, I fucked up so badly. They wish I were dead.
SA: They're crazy pissed. Yeah. The Portland way is like, "Sorry, do you mind if I screw you over? OK, perfect. I'm gonna do that, thanks! Real champ."
In your other short comic too, you had this amazing roommate drama seething under a touchy-feely co-op. Did you ever live in that sort of situation?
SA: Um! I did live in one, or hang out with a lot of those houses. There's one summer that I lived in New Orleans. I wrote Backyard to be such a toxic environment, but that wasn't really the case for me. I was living with such lovely people there.
Have your housemates read the comic?
SA: Yeah! I've had to figure out how to draw comics about real experiences and not hurt people in my life. There's really no one I'd like to suffer from things I write. Except maybe two people.
I feel like I've found so many other Portland comic artists through you, like there's this big, tight-knit community that just found each other. How'd this happen?
SA: It's a web of connections going back to high school for me, not just this big group, but a few planets and orbits. I met some artists through a group that met at Powell's Bookstore every Thursday, and we'd just draw together. Eventually, Sean Christensen — a really rad cartoonist — started this comic reading series called Grid Lords. And I found a lot of people through that. There's also the Periscopes Studio crowd there, people like Craig Thompson and Joe Sacco in Portland, Madeleine Flores, Sloane Leong. I'm just really lucky to grow up in Portland, where it's still OK to be creative and broke.
Besides that, I go to these comic conventions. It's weird going through my twenties in the comics community, meeting the same 100 people in different cities. That gives me a really skewed view of America.
Oh, I feel that. All I knew about America growing up in Taiwan was through DeviantArt. I came here expecting everything to be all cyber-goths and Hoobastanks and screamo spilling out of every speaker. I liked the version of America that geek online art subculture sold to me.
SA: (laughs) That's kind of incredible. I would actually live in that America.
But for Eighth Grade, you just sat down and decided to labor in solitude for a long time before putting it online? The first thing that struck me was how polished the writing was, like it'd gone through a lot of revision.
SA: It was a really, really intensive drafting process. I'd start with drawing thumbnails, literally the size of thumbs, and then move to pencil sketch that looks like Hawaii 1997. Then I'd ink it, and come back a year later hating it and redrawing it. A single page could go through five iterations, so I had time to edit. I was very traditional about assuming it'd be published in this big brick of a book, get a bunch of awards because I thought. well, everyone would see the expenditure of effort that went into it, and automatically give it an award. (laughs)That was my thinking. I knew where I wanted the story to go before drawing, though in the end it never reached the conclusions I was shooting for.
I also sort of copied Gilmore Girls, which has this beautiful formula with an A and a B narrative. They always do this really clever thing where they begin an episode with "Uh-oh! Rory's gotta organize this big event in town!" And at the end all characters come to one place, where you get to resolve all the conflict. Chapter two of Eight Grade was basically a Gilmore Girls episode.
By the end of working on it for four years, though, what was the point where you decided to stop drawing Eighth Grade? You mentioned a fellow cartoonist, Dash Shaw, texting you to tell you to move on from it since you've gotten so much better — and that was like cutting an albatross from your neck.
SA: Yeah, by the time Dash texted me, I'd stopped drawing it for six months. I just couldn't feel that engaged about it. By then I was doing short stories, getting much more immediate and positive responses to it. Eventually I was drawing Eighth Grade as a duty and chore, and I think readers can really tell that.
The way I prefer to write now is more on the fly, like nailing a snake to the floor — start with the tail, and work my way up to the thrashing head. It's still alive, and flapping everywhere. God, this is a weird fucking metaphor.
Did you get any weird online comments about Eighth Grade afterwards?
SA: In general, everyone was really encouraging. But I still get a lot of people asking me why I stopped drawing [Eighth Grade], and wondering when the next update is. At comic conventions they'd come up to me. Sometimes it feels mildly accusatory? I think it's all very well-intentioned.
It's like being asked about an ex or something.
SA: Yeah! Totally. But it's not your friend telling you that, exactly, but parts of the internet saying you should get back with your ex.
Speaking of which, do you cut off the internet when you draw comics?
SA: We don't have internet in my house [in Montreal], which is kind of insane. But I get a lot of writing done. My comics process is also weird. I have a cup of coffee and tilt down my laptop screen, and tap out the script in one go, and never look at it again. I don't correct it.
I might have to try doing that.
SA: I don't even use much of it for the final script, but yeah, that helps me generate stories.
Are you planning another big, long graphic novel after Eighth Grade?
SA: I don't want to talk about that too much in case it changes, but I think I'm doing a longer story about the ocean, a family having a vacation by the sea, and it'll be more magical realist or something. I have an impulse not only to distance myself from old projects, but to do violence to Eighth Grade. You know Dubble Baby?
Don't think so.
SA: It's a very "web comic-y" thing with pop culture jokes that I started to draw with my little brother while I was in college. He has this amazing sense of humor. But for next April Fools', I want to put all 200 pages of Eighth Grade on one page of Dubble Baby, including all the pages I haven't shown anyone, and in the end waste it all on a throwaway gag, have it turn into a giant robot manga. Like right at the emotional climax. I'm not sure what it says about me.
(laughs) That's pretty metal.
SA: I'm sure in 10 years I will have gotten over it. It's like when you're 15 and you want to complain about your parents all the time. I'm recently out of this phase and I want to complain about it. But I did learn so much from making that.
I remember you saying something about, like, wanting to branch out beyond what you jokingly called staid realist drama stuff, to something more surreal. Do you see a split between, say, Michael Deforge-style surreal comics and your own? What are your influences?
SA: The crazy thing about Michael Deforge is that despite all the acclaim he's received, he actually deserves even more. Even when he's talking about, say, zebras being a total hoax, he has this almost traditional structure to it. He can take insane premises and make them read like an Amy Hempel story.
But back to my own style. I was actually a really nerdy genre-fiction kid growing up. I was into sci-fi and fantasy. It wasn't until midway through high school that I started reading more "literature," and thought that was the real art that gets taken seriously. Like a lot of beginning artists I wanted so desperately to be taken seriously. A lot of my later stuff, like Haunter or The Worm Troll, though, was me trying to give myself permission to draw stories that I relate to a little more. There's a certain honesty to that. I'm a big nerd. I love inventing universes. It was secretly a lot of fun to draw a lot of castles — and the reader can tell when you're having fun, I think.
Haunter was the most fun I've ever had drawing a comic.
And also I just got to do an Adventure Time episode with Jesse Moynihan, and I got to design the interior of this castle and all these caves.
Whoa! As an environmental artist?
SA: No, but storyboarding. They have storyboard artists write the dialogue and stage stuff. I took a storyboard test, where you're given this tiny paragraph of script, like, "Finn gets in conflict with Jake, they go into flashback and resolve it." It's all very loose, and you basically have to draw a comic. But I got to do the preliminary sketches, which will be sent to Deforge and to other artists to finalize, and they might change it, who knows, but it was a lot of fun.
Dang, that's crazy! I didn't know that. When will we get to see it?
SA: In a bajillion years, or December 2014, I think. It was really fun to work on.