PAUL MADONNA: context for the rest of your day

(Evan Karp)

Paul Madonna produces the weekly All Over Coffee strip for the San Francisco Chronicle and Small Potatoes for The Rumpus, where he is also the comics editorHe produces the yearly art book series Album and teaches drawing at the University of San Francisco.

What follows is part 2 of a 2-part interview I conducted with Paul on Tuesday, April 26th at Ritual Roasters in the Mission, in anticipation of his now-released Everything Is Its Own Reward, the second collection of All Over Coffee (read a mini-review I wrote here). It was the first time we ever met. Despite this, I’ve left the conversation intact. Read part 1 here.

EK: What um… I know you said in a couple of interviews how Small Potatoes came about and I think you said it took about three years of doing All Over Coffee before you were able to work on something else,

PM: Right.

EK: and then after that how you started to develop another series, and how you like to work in series,

PM: Mmhm.

EK: and I don’t know, I guess talk to me a little bit about the difference between the work in this book and something like Small Potatoes.

The Whole Thing: Small Potatoes

PM: OK. The cool thing is that I remember writing in the afterword of the first All Over Coffee book—because I put the first Small Potatoes strip in that afterword—because I made it—I started running [AOC] in February of 2004 in The Chronicle—for April 1st, so really two months later is when I created Small Potatoes and I ran it in place of my strip in the paper as a joke. And the strip was about how they were ditching that weird, artsy All Over Coffee thing for something that people actually liked. … And the joke is, a cartoonist friend of mine once told me that, we were talking about art and important people, et cetera, and he’s just like Yeah well nobody cares about cartoonists, we’re just small potatoes. And I’ve always sort of laughed at that, so that became my little joke, like really the whole thing is just small potatoes. So is All Over Coffee, it’s all just—and that everybody is making such a big deal out of it, whether good or bad, is kind of a surprise to me, and a welcome surprise that people would make such a big deal about the strip. And I wrote in the afterword of the first book, I was like, yeah I kick around sometimes starting Small Potatoes as a series, and at that time I didn’t even know that I would. It wasn’t until I guess 2008 that I started that.

EK: Oh wow.

PM: And really I just needed a break. Like sometimes I’ll make a month or two’s worth of pieces—two if lucky—a month’s worth of pieces, and then I’ll just take a few weeks to do other stuff, or just to sort of think and read and write and you know I’m still drawing everything and whatever but I don’t have to finish anything, so it’s not necessarily like I’m on a weekly schedule. Like finishing every week. And I needed a break, and I just started doing cartooning; I realized that I needed to go back to the playfulness of drawing, you know, and not worry about everything being finished or everything being for a reason. So I went back to my notebooks, I went back to my sketchbooks, and just started doodling again. And I found that the Small Potatoes started coming out. And it was a way—it’s the antithesis of All Over Coffee because it’s about a meter, you know. Cartoons work on a rhythm: panel to panel, and they’re about back and forth, it’s about dialogue. If you look at Small Potatoes strips, in pretty much every panel there’s some action; that’s what I try to do, like somebody is moving toward something. So even when two characters are just talking to each other, one of the characters is standing up, or throwing something, or dropping something or picking something up—they’re moving around all the time, so it’s just like little choreography that I get to create. And whereas All Over Coffee is very still, and it’s about the moment, and so it’s a way for me to just exercise a different part of my brain, and a different aspect of my skills that I do have and I like to use.

You know, this was really just an experiment that blossomed into something. I had no idea when I created this that I would be doing it and have multiple books and spend years and, it was never my intention with it, or, it was just another project I did. I had an idea: I was like Oh, what if I put these things together in this way? OK I’ll try that. You know I had a string of things that I’d done before, putting things together in certain ways that didn’t do anything. But these two chemicals I mixed and they made a big colorful puff of smoke. And people went Ooh look at that smoke! And I was like Oh, well, I’ll mix these together a little bit more.

EK: [laughs]

PM: And after a while you’re like You know, I have a bunch of chemicals on my shelf that I haven’t been mixing together; I’m gonna go play with these ones for a while. And the cool thing was that I didn’t need to expect anything from it, because I had something solid going, and then I could just begin playing and find a different voice. And I was actually developing it for The Chronicle; there was a period where I was going to do two strips. I was going to do Small Potatoes in 96 Hours, but I couldn’t keep it at 3 or 4 panels. For just like the standard comic book. It’s funny, I was talking to the editor and she was like, Alright, this week just send me a few 3- or 4-panels. So I took a week and I wrote like 20 pieces that were anywhere from 10-30 panels long, and it was like getting blood from a stone to get two 3-panel pieces. That I liked. I said there’s no way I can do this every week, and maintain All Over Coffee as well. But then I looked and realized, I have all these super long pieces that I love. And I thought Well, that’s what I have to do with it. Because that’s where I’m naturally inclined. So that’s when I went to—well, Stephen hadn’t started The Rumpus yet. I started the Small Potatoes website, started posting stuff there, and Stephen called me like Hey we’re gonna start this website—that’s when I signed on to be Comics Editor—and I was like Hey! Can I put this on there? So you know it all was just a lark. If you notice, I haven’t done many Small Pots strips in a while. I’ve taken a break from them because I also don’t want it to be something I have to do. There was a period of time when I was writing five or six strips a week, and on top of this, and it just came easily. I would just get up in the morning, go to a coffee shop, spend an hour doing a Small Potatoes strip.

And, you know, for the past year I’ve been busy doing this book, I’ve got other things going on, so I don’t want them to be a stressful thing. You know, if a publication signs me on to do it, well then that’s different. I have no real responsibility with it, so it can be fun. And you know I sort of use them as a way to voice that angsty, bitter voice that can be in my head. You know when you’re just having a bad day and you’re just like Fuck everybody! It happens, right, so I give that to those characters. Because that doesn’t fit in here. And sometimes, I can’t always be the All Over Coffee character. That’s not always the role that I’m feeling, either. And in a way to go play this other character, it’s like stretching. It’s like Oh OK I can go back and do this now.

Paint Your Own Pictures

EK: From the outset, had you decided consciously not to have people and cars in the AOC series?

PM: Yes, it was very conscious. Because the concept was that the characters would exist in text, and that the drawings were more like feeder sets, and that we would see the stories being played out. And there was also the idea that I love—what I love about reading is that it forces us to be partly creative. The writer gives us enough for us to paint our own pictures. And that’s why I think illustrated books are really hard. Because I don’t want to see a drawing or a painting of the character. I don’t want to see that at all. That’s something I get to create! At least visually. You know, the personality the author creates. But I don’t want to see one person’s interpretation of what that author thought. And that’s why I think films of books are very difficult. One they have to be truncated. Two it’s just a different medium entirely, but it’s so hard for us to see an actor playing a role that we’re very attached to. Because we know that character. And so I kind of wanted to do the same thing: give a space for the reader to use their imagination. And it was about inverting the roles of comic strips too. Think about a comic strip, contemporary comic strip: there’s a cartoon character who’s in the foreground; there’s a very sort of banal background, and what we see is the repetition of that cartoon character all the time. So I removed that entirely and focused on the backgrounds, and instead of making them simple make them really lush, so it’s a scene that just sucked us in. Again, it’s just like a conceptual experiment.

What’d you think of the catalog?

EK: I thought Which one should I buy first [laughs].

PM: [… laughs] Just start with one and work your way through.

EK: Right exactly. No, I love it. Usually that’s a hard thing to pull off. It’s just like look at all these things that you could purchase, right? I mean… and for me as a consumer to be interested in it is impressive I think, because usually I’ll be like, Whatever, they’re trying to sell me extra stuff.

PM: It seems like it’s a sales thing?

EK: I guess I want it to be. You know. Because I want these on my wall. But I think also it’s neat because there’s information, you know, like now I know where [the setting of] this [illustration] is.

PM: Right.

EK: Which is really neat for me because I also like to just walk around, and that’s one of the things that’s appealing to me about your process, it’s just like This is speaking to me right now, let’s capture it. You know. That is awesome. So I like that about it, certainly. Does it contain all the pieces?

PM: Everything that’s in the book. And the reason I did it is because I didn’t want to put any of that information with the work on the page because then it would seem like an art book of plates, you know so it’s really saying This Piece Of Art, and then telling you about it. I want you to read it. More like a book, and flow from each piece to the next. I call them sort of A-B. There’s a lot of kind of question-response type pieces. I set them up so that they react off of each other. And that the chapters react off of each other. So the chapter breaks are there to give you a rest, and this type of information I think is like the self-conscious information that would pull you out of the sort of deep voice that’s there.

EK: Absolutely that was a wise decision.

PM: Yeah, and I actually don’t like this information. I did this for the readers, you know the locations are purely for, because I know that people are interested in that, and that just because it isn’t about that for me doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t give it to them.

EK: That it’s not of interest.

PM: Right. And so I wanted to give it to them in a way to serve their purposes and not interfere with my purposes. So you know I love the design of this book, too, and you know there’s two columns, it really sets itself off—you can almost pull it [the catalog/afterword] out as a separate chunk from the rest of the object. So there’s no confusing where the book ends and where the afterword begins.

EK: Right, absolutely. I like it for that reason. Definitely, I mean it would be so distracting. There’s no reason for it to be a part of the book proper.


Radiate as an Art Object

EK: What’s neat for me is that I didn’t realize there were chapters because I didn’t read it consecutively, I was just flipping through. I noticed, you know, here’s a break, but I didn’t assume that it was to signify anything except that maybe you had a full spread here so you wanted to start to do something different there. Until I read the afterword, and I was like Oh! There’s different sections to this book. And then I got really excited, and I haven’t gone through and started reading it as it’s set up [although I have since, and strongly recommend it]. It’s exciting, because you really can just flip to a page and just ruminate on this one message for the whole day, and that can provide a context for the rest of your day if you want it to, or say OK here’s the setup, and here’s the personal narrative, the fictional element, then here’s all this creative stuff that I want to get into, you know, it’s really awesome.

PM: Wow I love that because in a way that’s how I made it, which is the sort of one-off feeling, but the fact that you can enter in at both points is just really exciting to me. Because then it’s like you can have two totally different experiences with it.

EK: Yeah, at least!

PM: Right, at least, right.

EK: Not to dote on the commercial aspect of things, but how… if somebody emails you like I want to get #339, do you print them out ahead of time or do you have like a certain number of each one.

PM: Oh no well I sell the original drawings. Then I do make fine art prints of a lot of them. And I have a print house that does that. And they are unlimited; some of them are limited editions, certain pieces we decide. I have such a big catalog, and I want to make as much of my catalog available that… basically I sign everything but I don’t number them. So it’s sort of a weird bridge between the fine arts—they’re made on excellent materials, they’re high-quality prints, but they’re not limited. And the idea is that if—since we’re talking about the commercial aspect of things—I want to be able to hit multiple levels of spending, right, like you can buy a newspaper for 2 dollars, a buck fifty, and get my work every week. It’s not a beautiful representation; you can go online and see it for free. You can spend $30 and buy a book collection of everything.

EK: Right.

PM: You can spend anywhere from $75 to $500 and get a nice print, and you can spend anything from like $500 to $10,000 and get an original drawing.

EK: Yeah!

PM: So I’m hitting every price increment all the way from low number to higher number. Because if I just sold the originals I would lose a lot of people who wanted to appreciate the work.

EK: Yeah, for sure.

PM: And if you’re somebody who’s only going to spend $200 on something, me not providing that for you doesn’t mean that you’re going to come spend $1,000.

EK: [laughs]

PM: I’m not going to upsell you like that. It just doesn’t work. You have your limit of what you can afford and so I want to provide that. But I also don’t want to do just like a cheap poster. Because I want everything to radiate as an art object. You know you were talking about the thing I mentioned here about how you have to assign value, meaning to things, you know, and sometimes when an artist says My work has meaning or has value, their work can be called pretentious, but at the same time you have to decide where you’re willing to enter into. Like I’ve only made one commercial venture. I licensed the—I was commissioned by the Parks Society for the Warming Hut.

EK: What?

PM: The Warming Hut. It’s at Crissy Field. You should go, it’s like a little café and bookstore and it’s a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Yeah, you should go down there. It’s gorgeous. And you’ll see my images are everywhere down there, because they made shirts, they made aprons, they made books, they made prints, they made all these things. But they commissioned the drawing, and that’s the only thing that I’ve ever put an image on the mug. And I’ve got to tell you so many people are like You should do All Over Coffee mugs—I can’t tell how many times I’ve heard that one—

EK: [laughs]

PM: Which is fine. There’s nothing really wrong with it, except I’m not ready to do that. And you have to be at a certain level or it just cheapens you. And so I’m not gonna make $10 poster prints because I think that’s really gonna cheapen the work, and that’s just my aesthetic compass at the moment.

EK: Yeah yeah, fair enough.

PM: [laughs]

The Problem-Solving Part of It

EK: I read some myths that you used to just leave sketches around in public places.

PM: Myths? Myths?

EK: [smiles] Well I don’t know—I mean I heard it from other people.

PM: Who’d you hear it from?

EK: I don’t—I read as much as I could on the internet—I don’t remember.

PM: OK. It’s funny because I’m starting a new series of autobiographical strips, and I’m writing one about that. About how I really did. I got out of college, and I knew that I, I refused to get a job doing art for anybody; I got a job doing carpentry because I did not want to sell my artistic skills. I’d seen too many people go down that road and basically stop making art for themselves. So I thought well I only want to make art for myself, well, I want to be published, I want to make a living as an artist, and the only way to do that was to not sell what I did for somebody else. So for ten years I worked other jobs so I could start getting published and start making money. And I was like so how do you start making money? People have to know who you are and want what you do. Well how are they gonna know who you are and want what you do to give you money? Well they have to see it. How do they see it? Well you don’t get a gallery until they—it’s that paradox, right, and so I was just like fuck it, I’m just going to start leaving it places. So I literally would just make piles of zines and leave them in stacks in cafes, restaurants, everywhere I went. My friend and I once went into a bookstore and just went through random books and just tucked, serruptitiously tucked a zine into all these random books. With the thought of like if somebody buys this book—and all different sections, too, so random people—they would open it up and maybe find it, or hopefully even get the book home and not discover it until they found it.

EK: Until later, yeah.

PM: Who knows you know, maybe the bookstore people found that and just like, This fucking guy.

EK: Like that guy’s in here again.

PM: Like AAH! [both laugh] And there were times when I would just see strangers and I’d be like Hey, have this. And I would never charge any money for it because I thought You can’t charge money until people want to give you money. And I actually met my wife because she found one of the books and emailed me. Because people started writing me letters, they started sending emails, because they would find these things around the city. For a while we were emailing; she was just another person sending me an email, saying like Oh cool I like this. It wasn’t flirtatious, it was really just straightforward. And then she was like Hey I’m going to this art show, and I went to an art show and we met, and literally the next day we’ve been inseparable ever since. And I was like that’s why I did that. I didn’t do that to make any money; I did that to find the person I’m going to spend my life with. So I was like OK I can stop giving those away for free.

EK: [laughs]

PM: But I think there’s that problem-solving part of it, which is that I also know I could not make the work and just let it sit in my room. If I did that, I would be utterly depressed. Always for me the work needs to go out; people need to interact with it. That’s why I love publishing in the paper. You know, that’s why I love making books. The fact that you can take this with you to the bar and get in trouble with your girlfriend, or you can be in bed, or be at the bus stop, and you can have these moments that you say can define your entire day—I can’t tell you how much that warms my heart. Because that means that I am a part of your everyday life; I am a part of the most private part of your life, which is when you are by yourself and choosing what to interact with. And that’s wonderful. When you get an opportunity to engage with people in that way, and you know this object can do it. And I think I had that experience with other people’s books: I fell in love with books that way and I was like That’s how I want to get to people.

EK: Yeah.

PM: And so making zines for free was the only way to do it. And the thing is I was so broke. This is back when Kinkos was still Kinkos and it was open 24 hours, and it was totally run by you know just a bunch of punk kids listening to hardcore music in the back at like 2am. It was a lot more chill 20 years go. And you know I didn’t do this all the time, but one night I went up and gave the guy $20 and I made about $200 worth of copies. He pocketed the twenty bucks, and I got to make hundreds of zines, and from 2am to 6am just printed them all out, and then I would go home and just fold, staple. Put on music, fold, staple. I lived in one of those tiny little sunrooms, the back room to somebody’s house and I loved it. I would spend weeks of just—always in my backpack I’d have a big stack of zines and everywhere I went I’d carry them around.

EK: That’s awesome.

PM: Yeah. It was the way that I encouraged myself. You know because even when I was leaving those stacks for free, I felt like Yeah I’m getting it out there, because each one was potential; it was hope. And I’ll tell you what: I had this terrible, terrible moment where Café Biere, I remember my comics seemed to disappear from there, I was like People love them here. One day I took a stack, got a coffee and I turned around and saw one of the employees just going over and taking it and just throwing it away. And I could tell it wasn’t about me, personally; they were just, they didn’t want people leaving stuff there. I probably threw away hundreds of comics over the months, and just the hours of folding and stapling, and maybe each cost me like twenty cents or I got them for free, and then I had a friend who worked in a coffee shop, who if I went in at certain times would just give me free coffee, so I found ways of getting them made, but it was the most desolate moment for me when I just saw her throw a huge stack—I was just like Really?

EK: It’s like Why didn’t you tell me?! The next time you saw me put these down—

PM: And I don’t even think, she didn’t see me put them down, it wasn’t like she was reacting to me, it was just I just happened to be there to see that they just cleaned those things… and so I stopped giving them there.

EK: [laughs] Naturally [laughs].

PM: I had times where I’d go into—I used to leave them in video stores—I would go into, I went into Naked Eye one time, and they were selling them. Like they had taken them out of the area of free stuff and put price tags on them and put them on the shelf. I was like… that’s kind of cool!

EK: Yeah.

PM: They were only making like a dollar.

EK: Yeah yeah yeah.

PM: Off of each one. You know? OK maybe they’re selling ten bucks—what is that going to do for me? But it was this cool—it was like the opposite of that, where somebody elevated them—and that was what I was looking to do. You know How is somebody going to be willing to give you money—they have to find value in it.

EK: Yeah.

PM: And if I had walked in there and was like, Will you sell my comics, they may not have. Maybe they would have, maybe they wouldn’t. But they made that decision to do it.

EK: Were there other moments like that that were independent of you when you saw people taking your work, and—

PM: Um, you know when I met my wife, so OK very brief, brief history: I did this for a few years and then I took some time off from doing it, took like a year and a half, two years off. And then I made one little zine and decided to put it out, and I made maybe 150, 200 copies and I just walked around my neighborhood one day with a friend of mine, and that was the one that Joen, my future wife, found. And I thought it was really interesting because I hadn’t made one in almost two years, and I was just like—I had been doing a lot of work in my sketchbook, and finally I was like This would make a really cool zine. I put one together had a lot of fun doing it, and I was like What crazy timing. Because she was—she had lost her job and was on a random walk in a neighborhood that wasn’t her own; the fact that she found it… it was almost, it’s like you have this subconscious you wake up, and you’re like Oh my car’s gonna get towed! And you run out right before the DPV shows up; you’re like, How did I know to do that? There’s just something that, it felt like one of those moments, like it’s time to make another zine because the person who’s gonna be important to me is gonna find it.

EK: [laughs]

PM: So that was a moment. When she and I met we drove cross country together and I made, I had made a new book, and I was leaving it in places, we were basically doing this all across the country, and there was a bookstore in D.C., it’s called Politics and Prose, that actually I’m gonna be speaking there next month, and now they sell a ton of my books, but at the time I put a stack of books there and we just camped out in the corner—because it’s a really busy shop—and we just watched people. And I would see some people come in and they’d just be looking around, and they’d do that: Oh wow, what is this? And I could just watch how like one out of five people, it was like this little beacon that would just grab them from the corner of their eye. And you know at a bookstore it’s a very busy, visual place, and that something like that could grab them… I just had such an amazing moment of like, Can you put something out in the world that will grab somebody’s attention?