Episode 092: Scott McCloud


The phrase “those who can’t, teach” runs through my head pretty consistently when I sit down in front of a blank page in an attempt to flex some creative muscles. It’s the curse of the critic, the curator, the teacher — anyone on the outside looking in who assumes their work, perhaps rightfully, will be subject to that added level of critique when they finally unleash it on the world. That, no doubt, is a large part of why it took Scott McCloud so damned long to bare himself in such a way. The artist has, quite literally, written the book on making comics — three of them, in fact. For decades, his work has been largely regarded as the gold standard for making and interpreting sequential art, a watershed moment in the academic approach to the form. Like so many on that side of the creative process, however, McCloud’s bibliography has long lacked a major, self-contained narrative work. In the 80s, the artist produced Zot, a manga-influenced light-hearted take on superhero books, but until The Sculptor, McCloud has never given himself a long-form opportunity to put into practice the rules he’d first committed to paper in the early 90s. A half-decade in the making, the new book shockingly lives up to the hype. It’s a masterfully constructed and pitch-perfectly paced take on the Faustian archetype with creative roots that reach back well beyond the publication of McCloud’s earliest work. I sat down with McCloud in a colorful room at First Second’s Flat Iron Building offices ahead of his speaking engagement at the 92nd st. Y to discuss The Sculptor, thinking critically about comics and the frustrating notion of the effortless artist.


Episode: 091: Legs McNeil


I feel a bit bad entering the hotel room. There was a bit of a miscommunication on timing, and Legs McNeil is clearly quite comfortable lying in bed watching Law and Order. It’s an episode he’s already seen multiple times, a fact he lets be known by rattling off the entire plot in a couple of quick sentences, so he’ll be able to give me his undivided attention as Detective Briscoe successfully apprehends some pure. McNeil and frequent collaborator Gillian McCain finished up an talk at the Rough Trade record store earlier in the evening, discussing their latest, Dear Nobody, a posthumously published diary of troubled young teenager, Mary Rose, though the pair had devoted most of the New York City trip to a forthcoming book focused on Charles Manson, which McNeil promises will shed new light on the well trod story — even if he’s admittedly a bit cagey on the specifics. McNeil and McCain’s first — and best-known — collaboration was 1996’s Please Kill Me, an oral history of punk rock’s early years that is widely regarded as the definitive document of the movement’s New York City roots. It’s a story McNeil knows as well as anyone, as the co-founder of Punk Magazine, the iconic fanzine that give the CBGBs movement a name. These days the author no longer calls New York his home, having traded in the skyrocketing rents and disappearing culture for a far more bucolic life in a small Pennsylvanian town, where he lives, writes and catches the occasional rerun of Law and Order.


Episode 090: Jordan Morris


The list of people I’ve cohosted ska shows with is a short one indeed. It’s like going into battle with someone, really — a battle that trades the gunfire and mortar of trench warfare for song request from teenage Reel Big Fish fans, but a battle nonetheless. It’s the sort of experience that forms life-long bonds. Our careers have taken divergent paths since then — both of us eventually coming to the realization that ska radio DJ just isn’t the lucrative career path it once was. Jordan has made a name for himself in the Los Angeles comedy scene, thanks in no small part to his role in podcasts like The Sound of Young America and a titular co-hosting gig on the long-running comedy program, Jordan, Jesse Go. After a hilarious stint cohosting red carpet and movie junket interviews for extreme sport cable channel Fuel TV, Morris landed himself a position as a writer on the popular Comedy Central series, @Midnight, a gig that recently brought him out to New York City for a week. We caught up over some whiskey and a couple of microphones in between whirlwind schedule of podcast appearances at a bar in Astoria, Queens to talk success, superheroesvmovies and, naturally, ska.


Episode 089: The Birthday Boys


Practically every episode of RiYL has had the same format — two people having a long form discussion into two microphones. Given my portable setup, things get a bit more complicated when a third is added in, as is sometimes the case when interviewing band members. It’s not that I don’t welcome more voices, of course, it’s just that I don’t really have the setup to accommodate such things.  And then there’s the Birthday Boys. When I walked into the conference room at IFC, I was greeted by the entire sketch troupe — all seven of them. And as such, the first ten or so minutes of the conversation revolved around where we should position the chairs in order to get the maximum effective of seven different people sharing the same microphone. The good news is that thing pick up considerably from there, as the Odenkirk acolytes shed some light on their origin story and their seemingly overnight rise to fame in one of the funniest episodes we’ve ever recorded as the Los Angeles troupe discusses some of the bluer stories from the time they spent sharing the same house, Monkees-style. So sit back, relax and enjoy — but maybe put the headphones on if you’re planning on listening to this one at work.


Episode 088: Jim Woodring


I’m not sure where to start with one, but the gallery seems as good a place as any. It was, after all, the reason Jim Woodring was in New York for a particularly cold few days last week. Fine art has been the cartoonist’s focus off and on for the better part of a decade, bouncing between the world of galleries and the paneled pages on which he first made his name. It’s hard to believe, then, that the artist is only now having his first solo gallery showing. Honestly, though, that’s likely the least surprising revelation in this hour long interview. I defy you to have an extended conversation with the artist without having your mind blown a bare minimum of four or five times. Woodring has long used his comics work as a method for exploring his singular vision of reality, beginning in the 80s with the publication of Jim, which explored the artist’s dreams and long standing hallucinations in the form of autobiographical comics. His most beloved work, Frank, was a more fully realized world inhabited by assorted anthropomorphic beings, including the titular buck-tooth hero. The last time I spoke with Woodring, the artist was promoting Seeing Things, a collection of his charcoal drawings that presented an even more direct insight into his visions. At the time, the artist had seemingly turned his back on comics, but has thankfully returned to the medium with even longerform works. These days Woodring works in whatever medium best represents the images he’s attempting to represent as he walks through life, moleskin sketchbook in-hand. I ask to see what he’s been working on during his days in New York City and he happily stands up from his hotel bed and rummages around in his jacket pockets. Woodring is that rare and wonderful sort of interviewee who creates work that requires no additional discussion, yet is perfectly willing to discuss it ad nauseam when the time comes. The result is a frank and fascinating conversation tracing the course of the artist’s career, beginning with his very first frog hallucination.


Episode 087: Mary Timony


“I feel like this band is what I’ve been search for during my entire musical career.” Some pretty strong words from someone who’s been in bands like Helium and Wild Flag — and, of course, there's the matter of all of those solo records. But when Ex Hex takes the stage a few hours after our interview, there’s no question that Mary Timony is in her element. Indie rock, post-punk — all of those subgeneres are rendered moot when the band hits the stage. The trio that tears through a dozen songs in front of a packed Mercury Lounge is a just a good, old fashioned rock band.  Any lingering doubt is put to rest by the two song encore. Having expended all of the songs from their excellent debut, Rips, the band launches into a pair of covers — first Johnny Thunders, then the Real Kids. And everyone goes home satisfied. So, how did Timony arrive at such a state of rock and roll bliss? We reach way back to her days learning classical violin, up through the off-season that she spends teaching guitar to youngsters to get a full picture of her musical journey.


Episode 086: Cory Doctorow


There are worse places to conduct an interview with Cory Doctorow than the press center above the New York Comic Con show floor. Granted, it’s still fairly low and a bit hectic that high up, but there’s want for conversational inspiration. In fact, if there’s a complaint to be had, it’s that 45 minutes is only enough to start scratching the surface.  Boing Boing blogger, science fiction author, digital rights and privacy advocate, Doctorow is one of those rare instances of an interview subject  with whom a few externally imposed conversational restraints might actually come in handy. But as a leading voice in the battle for freedom of information, Doctorow certainly isn’t going to be the one to enforce them. As it happened, the writer was on-hand to promote In Real Life for First-Second, a YA graphic novel produced with Los Angeles cartoonist Jen Wang that tackles the subject of human rights through the lens of online goldfarming. By sheer coincidence, I also happened to receive an email from McSweeney’s, asking if I’d like to speak to the author for his upcoming treatise, Information Doesn’t Want to be Free: Laws for the Internet age. The best option seemed to be to simply sit down and see where the conversation took us. The result is a free ranging discussion that manages to covered a whole lot ground, while leaving me wishing for just a few more hours.


Episode 085: Francoise Mouly


The Greenwich Village loft space occupied by Toon Books is one part office space, part living comics museum. There’s a row of iMacs where most of the business is done, from filling orders to taking product shots, while just above on a second level balcony, a spool of bubble wrap roughly the size of a Volkswagen Beetle leans against a wall of bookshelves fit for a small library. There are decades of fascinating ephemera lining the walls, original comics pages, an in-store cardboard cutout for Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library and, most compelling of all, the Gary Panter classic comics head mashup painting that graced the first issue of the RAW’s second volume (1989’s “Open Wounds from the Cutting Edge of Commix”). It’s hardly a surprise, of course, that so many amazing pieces call the space their home. Francoise Mouly has been here for decades herself, since the days when she and husband Art Spiegelman first altered the course of the New York City avant garde comics community with a nascent anthology aimed at offering a publishing home to unknowns like Charles Burns, Joost Swarte, Ben Katchor and, naturally, Spiegelman, who used those pulpy pages to serialize a groundbreaking first-hand account of the holocaust starring a cast of cat and mice. That the Toon Books office occupies the same space is certainly no coincidence. Like RAW before it, the kids comics publishing company was launched to fill a perceived hole in the comics community in the wake of a media that had arguably overcorrected. Thanks to trailblazing works like Maus, the headline-ready phrase “comics aren’t just for kids” had quickly turned from rallying cry to cliche as adult-focused books rapidly became the norm in the intervening decades since RAW closed its doors. In the 00s, Mouly — by then the art director of The New Yorker — pitched a line of education kids bolstered by Jeff Smith’s epic fantasy masterpiece to Scholastic. By 2008, the idea gave way to Toon Books, an independent entity focused on books by cartoonists like Spiegelman, Smith and Eleanor Davis aimed at teaching kids to read and bolstered by detailed lesson plans aimed at reintroducing comics into a classroom setting.  A half-dozen years later, Toons’ scope continues to grow, including the recent publication of a Hanzel and Gretel adaptation penned by Sandman scribe Neil Gaiman. I sat down with Mouly in the middle of Toon Books' cramped quarters to discuss the company's role in the ever-evolving perception of comics as a educational tool.


Episode 084: Tom Scharpling


It must be around 11PM by the time Tom Scharpling arrives at my apartment, and he’s predictably exhausted. We’d scheduled something for earlier in the evening, but he found himself sitting though four hours of traffic making his way into Queens, making the executive to skip directly to the live podcast he’s appearing on a ten minute ride away.  He’s tired, but ready. This is his moment of triumphant, one of the final few podcast appearances on a victory lap before ending The Best Show’s year-long self-imposed hiatus, resurrecting the beloved public radio program as an internet-only concern. It’s a world the comedian has (somewhat) lovingly ribbed, but later this month, after a dozen-plus years as a terrestrial radio show, WFMU’s former tent pole program joins the ranks of standalone podcasts. Scharpling and indie rock drummer turned comedy partner Jon Wurster have spent the past year piecing together the infrastructure for a proper relaunch, taking a much needed break to pursue other avenues of expression and reflecting on the program’s strange and steady transformation from music-based radio program to one of the purest and most unique pieces of on-going comedy in the last 20 years. The intervening months have also seen a number of Best Show-related projects that have afforded further reflection, including the suitably off-kilter Adult Swim one-off The Newbridge Tourism Board Presents: “We’re Newbridge, We’re Comin’ To Get Ya!” and the forthcoming Scharpling and Wurster Numero Group boxset, which collects 79 of the duo’s best bits over a massive 16 CDs. Even after all that, I still managed to squeeze around an hour or so out of Scharpling to talk social media, success and Donald Sterling.


Episode 083: Craig Finn and Tad Kubler ( of The Hold Steady)


The Hold Steady are just one of those bands — it takes all my will-power not spend the entire interview drilling down on the specifics of all of those story songs that populate the group’s backcatalog. After a decade of listening to everything they’ve ever got out, I’ve got my share of questions about Charlemagne and Gideon and the Cityscape Skins. In a funny way, sitting down with Craig Finn and Tad Kubler is like interviewing the creators of your favorite soap opera — albeit one that has unfolded obscurely, one album at a time over the course of ten years. It’s a soap opera no doubt inexorably tied to the lives of the musicians who create it, mirroring semi-misspent youths growing up in and around the upper midwest. I do have get a little nerd time in, after the recording, asking about the Party Pit, the one location none of the locals seemed to have heard of on my last trip to Minneapolis. A clearing in a suburban forresty area, according to Finn — developments that had never been fully developed, where the local kids went to drink just out of sight from their parents’ prying eyes.  It’s hard to imagine another band getting so much creative mileage from a glorified hole in the ground that had likely been paved over decades before in the name of commercial developments. But, then, that’s precisely why there’s never been another band quite like the Hold Steady.


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