Sam Kieth

Sam Kieth


For a guy that uses such a small amount of dialogue in his comic books Sam Kieth has a lot to say. At times when I was writing this up it felt like a stream of consciousness, but that reminded me of Kieth's most famous work, The Maxx.

Kieth rose to prominence with his Marvel Comics collaborating with writer Peter David on The Incredible Hulk and Wolverine. But it wasn't until he moved to Image Comics and created The Maxx and later The Maxx cartoon on MTV that his cult began. Kieth used that Hollywood credibility to parlay himself into directing a feature film for Roger Corman. After the film wasn't well received Kieth retreated into his world to try and figure out what to do next.

When he returned to comics his art and storytelling had taken leaps and bounds with books like Four Women. That story is his most mature work to date and it tells the tale of four women in a car that breaks down on a lonely stretch of highway. They are attacked by some punks and one woman gets out of the car to fight them. The women inside the car make the choice to lock her out to save the rest of them.

But what gives Kieth his real Goth credibility are books like Zero Girl about Amy Smootster who excretes this strange liquid from her feet, uses circles to defend herself from the evil squares and falls in love with someone much older than her. This is Kieth's most autographical work since, at age 15 he hooked up with and eventually married a woman 20 years older than him. I think a lot of girls on this site can relate. One of Kieth's biggest credits though is that he was the first artist to draw Neil Gaiman's Sandman. I don't think a lot of people even realize that.

Kieth's has a lot of books coming out now. Both The Maxx and another early work of his, Epicurus the Sage are being reprinted by DC Comics. Also IDW Publishing has just released The Art of Sam Kieth. A nontraditional interview for a very nontraditional guy.

Check out Sam Kieth's website.

Daniel Robert Epstein: With books like Zero Girl and Four Women your work has taken such a leap forward in the past few years.
Sam Kieth: Has it? [laughs]
DRE:
Sure. Why did you feel comfortable doing those more personal books now?
SK:
I'm trying to think. Things are happening right now. It's not like I'm such a big time guy with so many things going on. There is a lot of minutia in life. You have to figure out what you are going to put out.
DRE:
In Zero Girl you mention at the back of the book that you married someone older than you. Is that what sparked this?
SK:
That happened a long time ago. I got together with her when I was 15 and she wasn't.
DRE:
That's cool.
SK:
It is now. But at the time it was illegal and it was a dicey thing until I reached 18. I was living with her. My wife always says that if they were going to come take us away they would have done it by now.

If the work does seem mature or tedious [laughs] it's partially due to the fact that I'm older now and the things that I'm interested in are more to do with dysfunctional relationships and the ways people hurt each other emotionally rather than physically. For a while, things I was able to do a book about the weird ass things I like such Zero Girl and Four Women. Then most creators might do a small book for an Indy publisher then do a mainstream book for Marvel or DC to pay for that small book. That's what I'm doing now, a black and white book for Oni Press and a werewolf book for DC Comics.
DRE:
But you did Zero Girl and Four Women for DC Comics.
SK:
I have been but you can only do these weird stories for so long before DC goes, Sam can you do a Batman story? You can only do these small stories for so long. I love doing them but it's like making an art film. You reach a handful of people in LA and New York then it goes straight to video. A black and white book is the same, its done out of love. What's stupid about it is that my versions of normal books get screwed up anyway because they're totally weird. I think I'm doing a normal Hulk/Wolverine book and I'm just doing more weird crap that snuck under the radar. Then I think I'm doing something edgy for Oni then I look at the other books they publish and I'm like, God I'm really old and boring. I should just go off in a corner and die. If I was looking at my stuff as a reader I wouldn't be blown away I would be really annoyed. That guy can't even really draw, it looks goofy.
DRE:
I think Mike Sangiacomo was saying something similar.
SK:
Which part? The antiquated or goofy looking art. I'm glad someone agrees with me about my stuff.
DRE:
[laughs] No, how your books can go from photo realistic to goofy.
SK:
I don't blame him. If I wasn't me I would hate my work and I do hate my work anyway. Woody Allen says that by the time he finishes a movie it's so far off from what he envisioned that he just says he wants to scrap it and move on to the next one.
DRE:
How did you pitch a book like Four Women to DC Comics?
SK:
Well it was Wildstorm [Jim Lee's company which was bought by DC] at first. It started with Zero Girl which all started with the Maxx which was many years ago. Then I quit for a few years and did a short film. Then I did a bad feature for Roger Corman called Take it to the Limit. I was so relieved no one saw that movie.
DRE:
At least you went out and did it.
SK:
There are all sorts of people who think they can make movies but they can't. After making that movie I went into a couple of years of depression because it was a humbling experience to discover that I had zero talent at directing. I was pretty much sitting around trying to recover from that. Then I started doing this dumbass comic that I thought was original and new but just ended up being the Maxx all over again. It was an alternative world where this girl was piddling her feet.
DRE:
That's Zero Girl.
SK:
Yeah but the original idea was this girl who pees green stuff out of her feet whenever she's humiliated. I was wondering if I could sell that to DC [laughs]. I thought I wouldn't be able to. Then I thought, what if it wasn't pee but this strange green fluid and her humiliation was her power. Something that people usually cringe about was something that enabled her to battle.
DRE:
It also represented girls who get their period during school.
SK:
Yeah that was a whole other thing. I thought I would get so much shit for Zero Girl when it came out but people embraced it. Again and again I take the seediest and sick parts of my personality, put them out there and women, who I thought would find it disgusting, and embrace it instead.
DRE:
Women can be gross too.
SK:
That was what was so cool about my wife when I first met her. She was the first woman I knew that was sick also. That should be the name of this interview. Women are gross equals cool. She was the same way as me. Every dark and weird thought I had when I was 15 she said she had thought of that too. I was like, no way girls don't think of those things. She said girls do but just not the girls you were talking to.
DRE:
Not too many high school girls anyway.
SK:
Right but a lot of times those girls won't admit it unless under the right circumstances. Aside from being gross they share the same neuroses. It's not the environment in your teens to admit to those neuroses. It's almost full circle in that my stories are dealing with more and more adult content my fear is that something like Four Women would end up like a Lifetime movie. I wrote this five issue series for Wildstorm for Ashley Wood to draw that's never going to come out. That's probably one of the weirder and personal things I ever wrote and it's called the Dark Room. It started out to be about transgenderism and S & M and winded up being about my relationship with my wife.

There are two kinds of stories of I do. One is the adolescent stories with people being around 15 years old because that was big for me. Little kids who discover strange ass monsters. The other story is adults who screw each other up of their own free will.
DRE:
Is the way you tried to stop Four Women from becoming a Lifetime movie is by putting that twist in at the end?
SK:
That was the hope. I think the biggest problem is that I'm not four women. On a good day I'm not even one woman. It's based on something that happened to my wife. A guy did pull a knife on her once. I was trying to take the focus off the book from being about the horror of rape and be more about the horror of how women turn against each other or the question of being loyal to a friend. The trick was how to do that without being sentimental or maudlin. The weakness of the work is that it becomes those things in certain places but I think there is enough action and suspense to hold up. I think when I wrote the comic I thought yes of course you could look your friend in the eye after locking her out of the car to be raped. But then when I went back to tweak the book for the trade paperback I realized that of course you could but things would never be the same.

Four Women is actually being produced as an Indy movie and is casting in upstate New York right now. I want to do a movie that is good.
DRE:
Are you going to direct it?
SK:
I'm attached to do it. If it happens. We just got turned down by Frances McDormand. So it might be that I made it up the stream enough to get turned down by Frances McDormand [laughs].
DRE:
That is pretty good.
SK:
I'll take it. We haven't heard back from Laura Dern yet though. Even though that's happening I'm more excited about making even smaller badder movies up in Sacramento. It would be great to make that with Laura Dern. I think Citizen Ruth was about a million dollars. Personal Velocity was about $150,000. I don't want my movie to be gritty. There's a part of me that feels like I should do something the opposite of Four Women. It feels like Four Women isn't a rape story but a forgiveness story. I'm in the process of getting to talk to Susie Bright who writes a lot of the erotica out of the Bay Area. She wrote this story I really like about the difference between rape fantasy and rape reality. I could see getting together with her and writing that out as a five issue comic. I want to make it really gritty and incorporate a male's idea of a rape fantasy. But I don't want to do it alone but with a woman writer. I think it'd be interesting to combine our styles.

In the last two weeks I've decided I don't want to make good movies but bad gritty ones like Gummo. Forget trying to make a normal movie, maybe movies should be really bad.
DRE:
Nothing wrong with making a good bad movie. Gummo was pretty wild.
SK:
It was. A friend of mine is an artist that's involved with all sorts of alternative stuff showed me Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy. They movie makes Happiness [directed by Todd Solondz] look normal. The thing about it is that the form is as gritty as you can get. Someone clicked in my head about making a movie for $600,000 on film not evil video.

In comics I'm doing a black and while comic using crayon and drawing with my left hand so it will look shaky. I kept thinking that this a whole new phase and I should embrace bad art. IDW Publishing is putting out a hardcover book called The Art of Sam Kieth. The last few pages of that book will be Sam going off his nut and drawing with crayon.
DRE:
That's really interesting. Usually big comic book artists don't do stuff like that.
SK:
Right and everyone will say that's really interesting and not buy it. That's why we don't do it. I did it a little bit in Hulk/Wolverine. I don't have a problem with doing an arty thing in a place with a company where people will appreciate. I will always try people's patience because I'm a freak. I don't belong on this earth.
DRE:
It must be a big contrast to books that are the epitome of estrogen.
SK:
[laughs] I have to steal that line. The epitome of estrogen.
DRE:
Well then you go and do Hulk and Wolverine comics.
SK:
Yeah it pretty much disintegrates everything in terms of trying to build a fanbase but I have no choice. It pays the bills and I like big stupid things occasionally. Every once in a while I like to draw a big green shape that has big fists. By the time I am done with the series I find it really boring, how many times can they beat each other up. Even in Hulk/Wolverine I kept making jokes. Having a little girl come in and slap the shit out of Wolverine.
DRE:
What was the reaction to Four Women? Did it get to the people you did it for?
SK:
It pretty much did. I was surprised. I would go into comic stores and it would be the pick of the week. The people that wanted that kind of story found, it didn't sell a lot but it wasn't designed to sell a lot. It was designed to be a critically acclaimed book. When you draw four women with saggy body parts, they're wearing sweaters then they look like me and my wife. Time will catch up with you and everyone will look like the four women.
DRE:
Did you have complete creative control?
SK:
Yeah, it was really great when I came back to comics because Scott Dunbier the editor at Wildstorm comics was an old friend of mine. He had given Alan Moore all that freedom for his line of books. I'm not Alan Moore. But Scott told me I could do what I want but he would jump in and offer me advice. I trusted him so I didn't mind. Scott made the story a lot stronger.
DRE:
I can see Amy Smootster [the lead character in Zero Girl] becoming a big Goth icon.
SK:
Yeah they were talking about making a plush toy for a while. They talked about t-shirts and stuff like that. But for me she was just an excuse to draw Olive Oyl legs and a big furry coat. It's stupid because I've had people come up to me and tell me their girlfriend looks just like Zero Girl. That just means she has red hair and glasses which describes 90 percent of the population in San Francisco.
DRE:
Do you have a preference between circles and squares?
SK:
Well the last series dealt with triangles as being a splinter between the two. I would choose circles. It's curvy.
DRE:
I know it may sound silly but shapes play a large part in your work more so than a lot of other people.
SK:
Certainly The Maxx had the big triangle foot.
DRE:
Right and the background in The Maxx had that Krazy Kat look.
SK:
I don't know why that is but it's something you kind of become aware of. I would like to think its inspiring to people who do really stylized art. Mike Mignola was doing Art Adams back when he first started. He was doing minimal drawing and very stylized. I remember thinking that if this guy could do this then maybe he won't have to draw like Art Adams. I went through phases of tons of detail on the cover, thank god that's over with [laughs]. But I'm really interested in how abstract things can get.
DRE:
When did you start using different media in your comics?
SK:
I always wanted to. I used to get crap for it when I was doing Sandman. I would ask the editor if I could paint the panels then go back in and do the line art. She said no, that it would be too expensive. It was the same logic when comic creators stopped living in New York. Marvel claimed that they would go broke from the Federal Express bills alone. That's not true either.

But that was the way it was always done so just shut up and do it that way. It's the same as working on films and you talk about editing in the camera. Everyone is real fond of getting all the coverage you need and if you ask them about editing in the camera. They say, I know what I want. How could you know what you want? Because I've been doing it for 20 years in comics. But when you look at my movie you'll see that I clearly did not know what I want.

I have so much control over my left hand which is my control over my comics and the right hand is this deformed wimpy thing in the movies. My wife says that comics and films aren't two different worlds for me. She says I can do my comics and get them out there. So my ideas are not just sitting on a shelf somewhere.

When people do come up to me and say they like my weird stuff, they totally get it. They don't even act like fans they're more like friends. Even though my stuff is the bastard child of people like Dan Clowes [creator of Ghost World] and Chris Ware [Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth]. Those kind of guys say, Sam Kieth does superhero comics, he should drop dead. I understand that to them I am a whore for even liking superheroes. While mainstream guys are like, why don't you go talk to those Fantagraphics weirdoes.
DRE:
Do people really do that to you?
SK:
I'm in between. The regular standard superhero professional doesn't get my stuff at all. I think most of them see me as a cancer. I'm an unschooled self taught artist. To them my work looks edgy then to the real edgy people they think I'm the last white guy trying to do graffiti. I somehow managed to sneak a career out of it. I used to be the guy who just drew details and now I'm more interested in the story.
DRE:
I see that The Maxx is being reprinted by DC.
SK:
Yeah part of what happens is that when you're around for ten years then you turn around there is a reunion for a failed book and TV series.
DRE:
What was it like looking at that stuff again?
SK:
There are a few panels I really hate that I'm going to go back and repaint. Believe me if I was to point them out to fans they would say, no that's golden. It's good that the book is coming out because now it's out there again in one book. There is a demand for it because I never really did many trades of the Maxx. I think there was just one.
DRE:
Were you happy with The Maxx?
SK:
Overall yes. The stories I'm doing now are more creatively fulfilling in terms of me as a writer. But The Maxx was the very first thing I wanted to write. It was the beginning of me doing whatever I want, discovering how well that could go and painting myself into a corner because I was making it up as I went along. So it was creatively fulfilling but I did figure that it is better to know in advance what you want to do.

I'm happy that The Maxx never became a franchise because it caused me to go off in the corner and become a better storyteller.
DRE:
With The Maxx cartoon I think the problem with that is that it was too faithful to the comics.
SK:
You're the first person I know to say that and I think you're right in that the same problems that were in the comic were also in the cartoon. The little panels that I drew to be one inch tall in comics and looked ok were blown up for the TV screen and looked like shit. One of the most horrifying moments of my life was when they showed it on the big screen at an animation festival. They took a bunch of the art literally from the book, they just scanned it in. I thought so much of it looked so bad.
DRE:
I think a lot of people forget that you drew the first issues of the Sandman [written by Neil Gaiman].
SK:
Yeah it was just me and the inker, Mike Dringenberg. We were just hanging around when Neil created it. Neil said he created but he wanted our names on it. We were just lucky enough to be there when Neil created it. We didn't really have anything to do with it at all.
DRE:
When the movie happens will you have a credit?
SK:
I hope so. But I bet they get my name wrong.
DRE:
Its easy to look you up on the internet because of Kieth.
SK:
I know. I've seen all sorts of different biographies of me with my name spelled wrong.
DRE:
Did Neil let you in on what he was going to do with that character?
SK:
He had the first 12 issues plotted before I even drew it. It's funny to talk about this because at the time all I could do was think of how I wanted to be drawing any other book but that one. Because I didn't like my art on it and I was fighting with the editor really hard. She would say “I'm thinking about whether I want to fire you today.” I would think, yes yes yes. but the funny thing was is that I came across some old sketches of Sandman and three pages. One of them I was offered ten grand for. But there were two others of versions that were rejected. I was going to throw them out but a friend of mine told me to put it in the Art of Sam Kieth Sandman chapter. I can't believe there's a whole chapter of Sandman in my art book. People will think they're amazing and to me they're just crap.
DRE:
Are you as eccentric as your art?
SK:
Probably not. Ultimately I'm a very boring guy who lives with his wife, thinks wild thoughts but does nothing about them.
DRE:
Were you a Goth growing up at all?
SK:
I grew up in the 70's and there was the glam scene.
DRE:
That wasn't you.
SK:
No. but there wasn't really a Goth scene. But there were certainly people that were outsiders. I think the early David Bowie scene was precursor to the Goth scene. I was a very skinny and androgynous kid so I was the poster boy for strange people. If you're reading comics right off the bat you know something is wrong [laughs].
DRE:
What's your favorite pornography?
SK:
When I look up that stuff on the internet my wife doesn't even bat an eye when she sees me doing it. But she just doesn't want me to leave it up on the screen [laughs]. Its so unfair to make me choose. I like the badly written porn stories more than picture sites like ASSTR [Alt.Sex.Stories.Text.Repository]. Also Before Spread [ssspread.com] which has a lot of transgender people because I get bored eventually by traditional porn. The genders are so mixed up that at first glance the women look like guys.
DRE:
What's your favorite out of punk, emo and Goth girls?
SK:
My guess would be emo because I like the short hair and the glasses. But I like the punk girls too. I'm desperately afraid of offending the Goths though because my whole life can be summed up as tremendous desire to please women and angry at myself for putting myself in the position of wanting to please them.

by Daniel Robert Epstein.
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