Kevin Thomas Discusses His Illustrated Book Reviews with Biblioklept

Kevin Thomas’s new book Horn! (from OR Books) collects the book reviews he’s been doing for the past few years at the Rumpus. Kevin reviews new books (and occasionally reissues) in comic strip form. Over a series of emails, Kevin talked with me about his process, how he got started, the books that have stuck with him the most over the years, and his theory that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a secret remake of Three Amigos!  Find Kevin on Goodreads,Twitter, and Tumblr.

Biblioklept: You’ve been reviewing books at The Rumpus for a couple of years now in your strip Horn! How did the strip start? Did it start with The Rumpus, or before?

Kevin Thomas: I had been making these primitive autobiographical webcomics under the “Horn!” moniker for about a year when The Rumpus Book Club started. One of the selling points of the book club was that if you reviewed a book and the editors liked it, they’d publish it on the site. So I dedicated one comic a month to reviewing these books, and after the third submission was accepted, The Rumpus asked me if I wanted to make it a regular strip.

Biblioklept: What other kinds of comics did you make before that? Did you have any training or background in cartooning?

KT: No, I was trained, to put it generously, to be a composer. Before that I wanted to be a poet. I had great teachers in both of those fields, but never even thought about taking a studio art class. Maybe the fact that I hadn’t yet tried and failed at comics was what drew me to it.

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A Self-Portrait by the Artist

Biblioklept: Were the Horn! strips the first comics you did then?

KT: Yep.

Biblioklept: Still, given your background in poetry, I imagine that you had some experience writing critically about literature. What motivated you to put your reviews into a comic strip form?

KT: A few factors:

I thought it was a new idea at the time (turns out Lisa Brown was already doing it brilliantly and I will always be in her shadow).

And yes, I had proven able to write a decent essay in the past, but I had serious doubts about my ability to do it after college. For years I was trying to write these two long, pretentious pieces: one on how The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou is an underrated masterpiece and a crypto-remake of Three Amigos!, the other about getting high and watching all of Star Trek: The Next Generation on DVD with my roommate until he got a boyfriend and started watching some episodes without me. So the limited space and deadline pressure of a comic strip were what I needed to actually make writing happen. Also I probably needed to smoke less weed.

Then there’s the selfish reason: I wanted more people to see my comics, and The Rumpus was a way to achieve that.

Biblioklept: All right, I want to go back to how you started—like, how you conceptualize your reviews—but first I want to hear a bit more about this Life Aquatic/Three Amigos! thesis, if that’s okay

KT: Well, it was sketchy to begin with, and it’s only lost clarity over time, but it started with both movies having a gag where one character draws a line in the sand (or on the deck), and the other characters get confused about what side of the line they should be on to indicate their support. But also the plots are very similar: Zissou, like the Amigos, is a filmmaker—more actor than oceanographer; both movies start with an injustice that needs to be avenged; then there’s the aforementioned mutiny/leadership crisis; finally, our phony heroes face real danger (bandits/pirates) and have to be heroic for once in their lives.

Biblioklept: Like a lot of directors, Anderson is pretty good at appropriating images, motifs, and plots. He lifts the credit sequence for Life Aquatic from Buckaroo Banzai.

Film is obviously far more visual than literature—or maybe it’s visual in a different way, is what I mean, where the reader has to participate more in the visualization than the viewer of a film has to. Your comic reviews allow you to interpret some larger element of the prose in a few images. How do you go about drafting and planning the reviews—how much of it is happening while you read the novel?

KT: I’ll have to get over my fear of being disappointed and just watch Buckaroo Banzai sometime. I make margin notes while I’m reading, whether it’s a good line or a striking image, and then I usually draft the review in Gmail. (For a long time I used a Field Notes book for my drafts and ideas, but it’s so much easier to rewrite and save something in email form.) After that, I assign pictures to go with the text so the whole thing makes both narrative and graphic design sense. (Everything I learned about graphic design, by the way, is thanks to Paul Madonna, Rumpus comics editor.) Since I’m limited to so few words, they’re mostly spent summarizing the plot and getting at the major themes of a book, so the pictures have to do the work that in a normal book review would be done by a series of quotes.

Biblioklept: There’s a pretty rigid structure to each review: a 3 panel by 3 panel grid, a left to right/top to bottom reading pattern (with the first panel given to an illustration of the book’s cover), and maybe 3 to 7 words in each panel. Do you ever want to add more words? How do you go about choosing what to leave out?

KT: Yeah, I’ve gotten into trouble for not using more words before. In my review of Andrew Shaffer’s Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love I was unfortunately not specific enough when it came to the open relationship of Sartre & Beauvoir. Someone on Twitter or Tumblr commented, “‘Open relationships’ = ‘failing at love’? GTFO.” My mistake was not making it clear—as Shaffer did in the book—that S&B’s problem was that they didn’t tell their other partners they were in an open relationship.

Another time I got a comment on my review of Debt by David Graeber. I summarized Graeber’s policy suggestions as “Let’s clean the slate and start over,” which is exactly what the author would suggest as far as medical, student loan, and third world debt, but this person was clearly upset by the diffuseness of my restatement. I’m guessing this commenter had a political axe to grind, but it didn’t help that such a dense, academic book was maybe out of my wheelhouse. (I’ve been wanting to do Piketty’s book if only to take on the challenge of reading it cover to cover, but I fear I’d just get into the same sort of trouble.)

Long novels, on the other hand, don’t pose the same problems. The Instructions and The Goldfinch (which didn’t make the deadline for the book) were both super-long, but their philosophical questions were easier to tease out in a few words.

As to what to leave out, I can’t answer that question very helpfully since I stopped drafting on paper. Usually though, I will start with one or two different angles of attack. Sometimes they are two short sentences and they fit together perfectly. Sometimes, one sentence absorbs the other one like a parasitic twin. Or I’ll have to cut one sentence in half, put the second clause first, maybe discard the first clause, and continue from there. (I guess I just described ‘writing’ to you.)

Biblioklept: I abandoned the Piketty, but I also abandoned The InstructionsSpeaking of: I like how at the beginning of your review of The Instructions, you offer this preface about how you can’t really do justice to such a big book, but you’ll try anyway. I like the preface because I spend an hour and a few hundred words at the beginning of almost every review I write saying basically the same thing. Then I delete all those words.

The Instructions review is one of your earlier ones. Several of the earlier pieces are much wordier than your later style, which strikes me as a bit more poetic—I think there’s also a stronger synthesis of words and images in the more recent pieces than in the earlier ones. Was this development of style intentional?

KT: Always delete the first paragraph of anything you write! (Take it from me, the non-writer.) To answer your question: Yes, the brevity is intentional, and again it’s due to Paul Madonna’s influence. But I think I had it pretty much figured out early on, by the time of the You Think That’s Bad review—but even that one has a text box in the first panel because I needed those extra words. As far as synthesis between words and pictures, that has to be subconscious. There’s only so much I can control.

Biblioklept: You’ve mentioned Paul Madonna’s input on your design—how much editorial comment do you get from the other editors? Do you choose all the review selections yourself?

KT: I’m pretty much left to my own devices. From the beginning they let me choose what books I wanted to do, but I usually tried to do the Rumpus Book Club pick each month (until I fell way behind in actually reading them). Paul was a big help in the beginning by solving artistic problems and dispensing professional advice, Isaac Fitzgerald (original managing editor) was always there for moral/tech support, and Stephen Elliott is an engine that pumps out ideas and encouragement.

Biblioklept: Was it weird reviewing The Adderall Diaries, like, knowing that you were going to submit the review to Elliott’s own organ?

KT: Not really. Actually, that was a case where I abandoned the book I was planning on reviewing, and The Adderall Diaries was the best book I had read in the meantime. So maybe I wouldn’t have done Stephen’s book if there was another one available. And if I didn’t love The Adderall Diaries, I don’t know what I would have done. Taken a few weeks off?

Biblioklept: What books in the collection were the hardest to review?

KT: Visually, the hardest was probably Fire the Bastards!, which I knew I wanted to do since it was an indictment of the worst kind of book reviews: the kind that are written without having read the book. But how do you draw that? So I did a bunch of research and found some of the original newspaper/magazine clippings on the web. (Another reason I wanted to review that book was that it would be an incentive to read Gaddis—which was also a bit hard.)

As far as the writing goes, I can’t think of one that gave me real trouble. I love fiction where you’re not quite sure what’s going on, and there are quite a few of those books in here: Blake Butler, Dennis Cooper, Diane Williams, Chris Boucher, Matt Bell. Not knowing exactly what you just read makes it kind of hard to say anything smart about it, but—and this goes back to Fire the Bastards!—book reviewers make pronouncements all the time with similar doubts in the back of their minds. If they can do it, so can I, and anyway it’s not the end of the world if I misread a book.

Biblioklept: Your response intrigues me because I would imagine Fire the Bastards! as relatively easy to write about/after—it’s a fairly straightforward polemic—while I found Boucher’s novel very difficult to write about, in the sense that he’s kind of reinventing an idiom in How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. I also really struggled to write about Jason Schwartz’s novel John the Posthumous—again, there’s that problem of trying to use language to illustrate languageIn your review of that book, you condense Schwarz’s central motifs into a series of images. What kind of research goes into your illustrations. How much do you invent? How much of your illustration comes from other visual sources?

KT: Oh yeah, John the Posthumous is another good one: hard to write about, easy to draw (with a lot of help from reference photos). That book is so full of archaisms and obscure jargon that you have to look up so many words already, and then the definitions don’t make complete sense without a picture. I’m such a shitty illustrator that I often dip into the reference pictures, and for that review I especially would have been lost without a lot of research (as, I imagine, Jason Schwarz would’ve been trying to write the book without a ton of library time).

About Boucher’s book, that was kind of easy to write about because it’s so full of weirdness—you could describe any corner of that book and nobody would believe you. The hard part was matching his inventiveness visually, and I admit I chickened out by not drawing the veggie cars.

Biblioklept: The reviews in the collection are of contemporary stuff, new books (or new reissues, like Fire the Bastards! and Speedboat). Do you ever want to review older titles? Classics?

KT: Yes, in fact that’s going to be the next book: Horn! World’s Classics or something like that. So I’m going to be able to satisfy that desire and fill in those huge gaps in my education. There’s no rule that says I have to always review new books in my Rumpus strip, but there’s rarely a shortage of good contemporary stuff.

Biblioklept: Did you ever envision the strips being collected into a book? How did you hook with OR?

KT: I did have a vague notion of making a book, which is why I kept all the strips the same size and shape. But I didn’t think about it seriously until John Oakes (the O in OR) sent me an email out of the blue. I had done a few of their books so I guess I was pretty popular around the office. So after a couple of emails and Skype calls, I got a contract. I’m pretty sure it’s not supposed to be that easy.

Biblioklept: Most of your reviews are pretty positive. Do you tend to abandon stuff you hate or dislike?

KT: I’ll try to finish a book that I dislike, but I’m not going to want to review it. My strips take about 20 hours to make and allow so little space for words, and I think those are the two things a good negative review needs most: the gleeful velocity of dashing off a toxic screed and the ability to quote the bad book (or Guy Fieri menu as the case may be) at length. Also until I have published a book of fiction or nonfiction, I’ll be hesitant to pan one.

I realize this is not a particularly sound argument because there are plenty of movies I can’t stand, and I probably will never make a movie. But there’s something about shitting on a book in its own medium (language) that is analogous to heckling a standup comic: the heckler also knows how to make noises with their mouth, but they would never have the guts or the skill to stand in front of an audience and do it. Anyway, if I have ill will for something, I take it to Twitter.

Biblioklept: I almost never know how strongly a book has affected me until long after I’ve read it (sometimes I think I write reviews on my site just to remember the books). Of the books you reviewed in the collection, which have stayed with you the longest, impacted you the most—which do you still think about the most?

KT: That’s a good question, because there are those books that suck you in so you never want to leave their world (Leaving the Atocha Station and Middle Men were that way for me) and books that haunt you later whether you particularly enjoyed your time in them or not. Goon Squad, Crapalachia, Speedboat, and White Girls are probably all in this group. The Goldfinch was a little bit of both: I wish I could have taken longer to finish it, but after I did I couldn’t stop thinking about Boris and Hobie, two absolutely fucking perfect supporting characters.

Biblioklept: What are you reading now? Do you already have a sense of what the next published review will be?

KT: I just finished Reading Style: A Life in Sentences by Jenny Davidson, and that’s going to be my next Rumpus review. I started Crystal Eaters by Shane Jones the other day; a review of that should appear in print in the near future. And I’m working on a longer, secret project based on the Gospel of Thomas, so that’s in my stack. I’m also reading Joan Rivers, Ian Fleming, and Edgar Allan Poe for fun, but they are going to have to be patient with me.

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

KT: Only passively: you know how sometimes when you order a book from a small press online, there’s a miscommunication between billing and shipping, and you end up with a second, free shipment of whatever you ordered? I don’t return those books.

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