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Kevin Thomas: Books, Comics, and the Procrustean Bed

July 21, 2014

Andrew Rose interviews cartoonist/reviewer Kevin Thomas on distilling 1,000 pages into nine graphic panels.


Images courtesy of Kevin Thomas.

In Where the Stress Falls, Susan Sontag writes: “That virtuoso of extended prose, of the art of anti-laconicism, Gertrude Stein, said that… the distinctive genius of poetry is naming, that of prose, to show movement, process, time—past, present, and future.” Laconic would certainly describe the work of Kevin Thomas, whose graphic-form book reviews from The Rumpus—endorsements, as he would put it—have been published in Horn! The Collected Reviews (OR Books). It is not the concision of his work that makes these reviews so remarkable, but just how much meaning and beauty he can carve from the space he has allotted himself. As a gem-cutter would, squinting through his loupe to chip away an infinitesimally small piece of a diamond, Thomas cares for the books he reviews in a far gentler and thoughtful manner than most critics.

In Horn! Thomas has created a poetic version of the book review, using both a visual language and the natural pauses in a grid format to form stanzas that allow the reader to breathe and reflect on the leaps the critic must perform in order to traverse and describe his subject.

Thomas’s impressions of a given book are like samples taken from the center of a distant planet: they give us a quick but infinitely useful impression of the thing. The author’s nine panels explode the conventions of a typical book review or interview, as well as the novel or person about which he writes and draws.

Beyond the complex, if not cryptic, imagery Thomas chooses, he is also brilliantly adept at using simple and instantly recognizable cultural tropes to illustrate the ideas in a given book. The Upside of Irrationality (#20) gives us Spock, a rat in a maze, a bowl of ramen noodles, and Homer Simpson in profile; Thomas not only illustrates the content of the book literally but also provides analysis one would strive to find in a nine-hundred word newspaper review, let alone in nine crisp panels.

Andrew Rose for Guernica

Guernica: Could you talk about how you work and how you feel that illustration and text combine for what you make for The Rumpus?

Kevin Thomas: It started with The Rumpus book club. When they started in 2010, one of the perks of the book club was that if you wrote a review and they liked it they’d publish it on The Rumpus. At that point I was already doing these comics that were just silly autobiographical comics and I figured I just put two and two together and reviewed the first three Rumpus book club picks. That’s how the relationship started.

Guernica: Tell me about your earlier comics. What made you start doing those?

Kevin Thomas: I was kind of feeling depressed and not having a creative outlet. I studied music composition in college and before that I studied poetry in high school and college and I wasn’t doing those things anymore so I just got inspired to try something that I’d never tried before. And they’re pretty dumb. The first one is a joke about how when I was in middle school taking a test for sex ed a girl tried to get me to help her answer a question about whether the vagina is always moist, like the mouth and eyes. And, so it was just a gag about how little boys get embarrassed when you talk about vaginas. And then I did some more serious ones about my cousin, who is a house painter and fell off a ladder and went into a coma for a while. They were all over the place and sometimes I just had opinions about shit.

Guernica: You mentioned you studied poetry; what kind of poetry are you interested in?

Kevin Thomas: When I was an angry young teenager I really got into Ezra Pound. I went to Lewis and Clark College; of course everyone there reads a ton of William Stafford. There’s like a William Stafford cult there. My poetry teacher there was Vern Rutsala and he writes these great prose poems that are like a paragraph long. I imagine that that’s an influence; his short, funny paragraph poems.

What I’m trying to do is boil something down without killing it.

Guernica: You chose that name Horn! as something to get the word out about a book—is that accurate?

Kevin Thomas: Yeah, it’s retroactively accurate, because in the beginning it was just a nonsense word or just a filler word to title my autobiographical strips. The idea was that Horn! would be a fictional or a nonexistent newspaper and that the comics supplement would be the strip that I drew.

Guernica: I find it very interesting that you mention poetry because you’re taking these very dense works and you’re turning them into something very different than traditional criticism. How would you describe what you make?

Kevin Thomas: I think what I’m trying to do is boil something down without killing it. Trying to respect the work even though I’m chopping it down like on a procrustean bed and also using the visual as much as I can to replace the words that I can’t fit. And each review isn’t really a review, that’s a misnomer: they’re more like endorsements or distillations.

I try to bring out the beauty of the book—what Jenny Davidson calls “the glimmer factor” in the illustrations while I try to get to the deep questions through the words.

Guernica: In terms of distillation, it seems like such a difficult process; can you tell me about a particularly hard book to do that to?

Kevin Thomas: Well the hardest one would have to be The Instructions by Adam Levin because it’s like 1,000 pages. With that one, I just went for the voice of the book because he’s got a really distinctive voice and his characters all speak kind of code language or slang language and they all have inside jokes so I think that’s what I focused on with that one.

Guernica One of the things I took away from this, and you spell it out in the intro: “My goal with each strip is simultaneously to get to the core of a book and to luxuriate in its surface beauty.” I really think that’s an interesting tension and I was wondering if you reconcile those objectives.

Kevin Thomas: I think it’s a trick that I use to get a book like The Instructions down to a few words because in that one I ask the question, What’s the true nature of evil, what’s the true face of evil? So like in The Goldfinch, that book has so many deep questions and she spells them out for you at the end in case you didn’t catch them but also there’s great sentences in these books and without the ability to quote them at length I try to bring out the beauty of the book—what Jenny Davidson calls “the glimmer factor” in the illustrations while I try to get to the deep questions through the words. That formula might not apply to everyone.

There are a lot of people who feel this way: overwhelmed by the smart, fancy people who write books and write about books and kind of compare and argue about books. So it’s kind of a way in.

Guernica: It just seems like it takes such an immense amount of thinking to put the two together. We were talking about how what you do it’s not the kind of book review you’d see in the Times or elsewhere, but what do you see is the value of it per se? How does it fit into this literary community? What would you say is its place or what you’d want it to be?

Kevin Thomas: It’s tangential. It’s outside and to the left a little bit but that’s kind of how I feel; I wasn’t an English major. I kind of didn’t like those people, at least at my school. It took me a while to pay attention to what was happening in books and there’s all sorts of distractions: there’s politics, there’s TV, there’s a million things to be interested in besides books so I’m kind of new to that even though we’ve all been readers all our lives. And there are a lot of people who feel this way: overwhelmed by the smart, fancy people who write books and write about books and kind of compare and argue about books. So it’s kind of a way in. And also at some point I have to mention that I’m not the first or the best person to review books like this. After I’d been doing it for a while I found out about Lisa Brown’s three panel reviews, which do what I do but better and in one-third the space.

Guernica: Does the nine-panel format ever get difficult or claustrophobic to work in?

Kevin Thomas: I think it’s good because, well when I first started with The Rumpus, Paul Madonna, the comics editor, said, You should think about not just limiting yourself to nine panels because the web comics format is open to comics of any length and you shouldn’t do something one way just because it works for print. But I’m lucky I didn’t because I’ve always wanted to have a book, or at least a zine. But I like it because it lets me know when I’m done, but I would like to do more two-page ones like the introduction. I’m thinking about doing a two-page review of an author who’s got a novel and a book of essays out at the same time. I like the format as it is; it works with long books like The Goldfinch and The Instructions so if you don’t need more for those books.

You do have to spend a lot time thinking, just daydreaming before writing.

Guernica: It seems to me that it must take a lot of discipline to winnow it down like that.

Kevin Thomas: I used to write it up by hand in a little notebook but that got time consuming so now I just email it to myself and in gmail I can basically tell the length of the lines, you know, how many words I need or how long each spot needs to be so that’s a really easy way to edit myself. But you do have to spend a lot time thinking, just daydreaming before writing.

Guernica: So what’s going on outside of Horn! ?

Kevin Thomas: I’ve got a letter in the mail coming out from The Rumpus and I’m going to have a Horn! review in the fall Los Angeles Review of Books print edition and I just got commissioned from another literary journal to do a six-page illustrated adaptation of the Gospel of Thomas, the book of gnostic wisdom. It’s pretty exciting to me; not being religious it’s gonna be fun to play with.

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