Sam Alden interview

This is Music Miner’s first interview with an artist who isn’t a musician. Sam Alden is a illustrator/cartoonist who went to my high school. I stumbled upon his work one day and was blown away. I wanted to know the man behind the art, so I interviewed him; what he shared showed me that his work is not only beautiful, but also intellectually and emotionally deep. I’m not a dedicated comic fan, but even I can appreciate the genius of Sam’s work.

What was your earliest experience with comics?

I learned to read from Calvin and Hobbes collections, and most of my early comic obsessions were newspaper strips. For some reason my parents were hip enough to get me into Krazy Kat when I was really, really young– like seven years old. If you’re not familiar, Krazy Kat is this bonkers newspaper strip from the 20’s with these constantly changing desert backgrounds and an androgynous protagonist and beautiful, beautiful scratchy artwork. It was out there in 1921 and it’s out there now, and it was really out there for a seven-year-old.

When did you realize illustration was your calling?

I started drawing comics before I could even write; my first comic was about Rudolph (the reindeer) and I had to get my parents to write the text alongside my drawings. I knew that I wanted to be a cartoonist since around that time, and I haven’t really changed career goals since then.

When did you make the decision to pursue cartooning professionally?

Kindergarten, no joke.

Where do you draw inspiration for your comics?

Mostly music, actually. I’ve always been jealous of that way that music can create an emotional atmosphere in like, ten seconds. You listen to ten seconds of good music and you’re in that world and you’re feeling what the musician is feeling. Comics can have the same emotional weight, but you have to build up to it by introducing all this narrative and texture, and maybe by the tenth page of a really good comic you’ve got someone in that world and feeling something different than they were before.

My comic Haunter came as a direct result of listening to a lot of my friend David Kanaga’s music. David has an enviable ability to take fairly experimental techniques and apply them to pop music, and it often ends up very jungly and multicolored. Haunter was an attempt to capture something of that enegry on paper. Ittakes place in this candy-colored jungle, and I tried to make a lot of very abstracted shapes and forms read as foliage and undergrowth, and then tie it into a simple, compelling narrative: a hunter is chasing a pig. The challenge of translating the nonvisual or the nonnarrative into something inherently visual and narrative is always really fun to attempt.

“‘Haunter‘ is a silent, full-color adventure comic. It’s about a hunter pursuing a wild boar, and eventually being pursued by an ancient monster. Haunter is serialised on Study Group, a webcomic platform.”

Who are your primary influences in the comic world?

In the larger comics world, I think my favorites are Tove Jansson, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Osamu Tezuka, George Herriman, Gabrielle Bell, Jim Woodring, Jaime Hernandez, Lynda Barry, Susumu Katsumata, and Herge. And a lot of my formal comics education I owe to Craig Thompson, who’s been a really wonderful mentor and pal for the last few years. But mostly these days I think I’m just trying to make comics that my more talented cartoonist friends would like. So Sean Christensen and Julia Gfrörer, those two are my biggest influences right now and they probably don’t even know it. AND NEVER WILL unless this interview goes up online and they Google their own names a lot.

How has your style developed over youre years as a cartoonist?

My comics got a lot brushier in 2010, and suddenly I wanted ink everywhere, all the time. And recently I’ve been trying to cultivate a weirder, alternate style. It’s sort of wormy and clean lined, and it lends itself well to drawing things like monsters. It’s like of my B-style, like how sometimes PJ Harvey swaps out her deep heavy I-sleep-with-demons-voice for a higher, more delicate voice.

But in some other ways, I think that my drawing style now is just a refined version of the way I was drawing in middle school. You learn visual habits early and they stick with you.

What key events or experiences have had the most drastic effect on your style?

I think the big emotional stuff in my life comes up a lot in something like Eighth Grade. That comic is the synthesis of a lot of formative stuff for me; my parents splitting up in 2000 was a big one. Eighth grade, the real eighth grade, was a big year for me. I kissed a girl for the first time, and I had my first sort of sexual awakening, all of which was really terrifying and confusing and which I suspect I’m still parsing.

“‘Eight Grade‘ is an ongoing graphic novel. It’s about three middle schoolers and an interconnecting web of melodrama that engulfs them and their families in the final months before their eighth grade graduation.” 

What do you believe makes your work unique?

I don’t know, and I worry about that a lot. My art gets compared to Nate Powell and Craig Thompson sometimes, which is totally flattering (and undeserved) but I don’t want to just be known as Craig Thompson Jr. I think that my writing is a little more idiosyncratic and unique than my art, which is pretty much a synthesis of most of my favorite styles.

What do you strive for in your own work?

I guess I want to make a comic that’s good enough to make someone feel a certain way. Like I was talking about earlier with music and atmosphere; I want to make comics that really suck people into a world.

In your opinion, what makes a good comic?

I think there’s a common pattern for anyone who absorbs a lot of art and culture, which is that they begin by looking for stuff that looks or sounds really “professional” and then once they realize how much stuff there is out there that already conforms to those standards of competence, and reach a sort of saturation point on quality, they start looking for things that are weirder and more interesting. I’ve come to appreciate comics that fuck with some standard I’m accustomed to. But I still don’t really know what makes a comic good. Gabrielle Bell gets asked the same question in one of her diary comics, and she gets flustered and says something like, “I don’t know, I don’t like it when comics have too many lines …but then I also don’t like it when comics have too few lines”. That’s a pretty good standard. Comics should have the right number of lines in them.

“‘DUBLLEBABY‘ is a humor strip drawn by Sam and written by his brother Toby. It got a real cult following online and then Toby stopped writing for it. What’s the deal, Toby? Get your shit together!”

What has been the single greatest moment in your career as a cartoonist?

When I was in college we had a hip enough radio station to bring St. Vincent to campus. I drew a poster for the show, and after the concert I was a huge nerd and asked Annie Clark to sign the original for me. The poster was of a couple in the forest making out, and when she saw it she said, “That’s more action that I’ve had in months,” and I started sweating and popped fifteen boners.

What has been the hardest part of being a cartoonist?

The slow, inevitable realization that I may always need a day job. But maybe not, you never know. I’ve certainly saddled myself to the print industry pretty hard, which– guess what!– is not looking so hot right now. But I’m cautiously optimistic that independent comics will become a more viable career in the future.

What keeps you going when you feel drained with your work?

I guess it’s mostly a self-imposed, masochistic discipline. I had a lot of moments in college when I didn’t really feel like drawing, and I forced myself to because I thought: if I can’t make myself draw now, when I’m in this cushy, privileged position as a student at a small liberal arts college, then how am I going to make myself draw in the real world, after I’ve just come home from waiting tables and I’m exhausted and I just want to fall asleep?

How would your life be different without your art?

It sounds melodramatic, but I really have no idea. I think I’d be a pretty depressed and boring person. But who knows? Maybe without art in my life I’d be forced out of myself a little more, and I’d have found more meaning and excitement in the real world.

“‘Garden Spectre‘ is a short nightmare comic inspired by Japanese ‘gegika’ from the late seventies. It’s about flower symbology and a summer job.”

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

Oh god, anywhere but my parent’s basement. Portland is a wonderful city to live/be from if you’re interested in comics, but at a certain point it would probably be healthy to live in New York or Chicago for a period.

What notable work (projects, professional assignments, ect.) have you done that you would like acknowledged in the article? In other words, when I am talking about your career, what do you want people to know about?

I have a regular feature on Study Group Comics called Haunter, an online graphic novel called Eighth Grade that seems to be becoming popular, another online comic called DUBBLEBABY that is pretty popular as well, and I drew the credits for an indie film made in Chicago this year called Experience For Beginners. I was also an illustrator for an international men’s fashion show called CAPSULE in 2011 but I’m not sure what’s going on with that right now.

Information on Sam Alden can be found below (click links to be redirected):


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