Thursday, June 11, 2015

How skateboarding is (not at all) like comics

The interview I did last Winter with Marc Sobel that just ran at the Comics Journal was pretty epic at nearly 40 pages, typed up. But there was some stuff that got cut – in particular the part where he asked me about skateboarding. In general I don't cross my work with skating much, but the index in the new book has four citations for it. So here's the outtake (photos by Tim Pigott/SuchLuck):
no-comply off a loading dock
Sobel: I know both from other interviews you’ve done and also looking at some of the strips that are in your new book, that you were – or maybe still are – big into skateboarding?
Nilsen: I’m probably more into skateboarding than I am into comics, actually.
Sobel: Oh, really?
Nilsen: Weirdly enough, yeah. (laughs)
Sobel: Can you tell me a little bit about how that interest developed?
Nilsen: It developed because of Back to the Future. (laughs)
Sobel: Oh, really?
Nilsen: So I was in 6th or 7th grade when Back to the Future came out, and my friend and I saw it, and we were immediately enchanted by Michael J. Fox and his skateboard. And it was a moment where skateboarding was beginning to come back after being dead for a while. Skateboarding was a huge thing that suddenly happened when I was in junior high. All my friends had skateboards.
I think it appealed to me as a kid who wasn’t really interested in organized sports. Also, skateboarding has always had a very creative strain; it’s a sport but it’s kind of a weird artsy thing as well. There’s always been a creative aspect to it that’s been important. At that time, it was definitely connected to punk rock, which also was interesting to me.  
When I first started, skateboarding was controlled by a small handful of big companies, but within a couple years, skateboarders themselves started forming new companies, and there was a real proliferation of 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids, doing all their own graphics for their boards, and there was a real strong, snot-nosed creativity that was happening. I don’t know how to describe it to somebody who wasn’t involved in it, but there was a real sense that suddenly the lunatics were running the asylum, and it was super fun. They were doing these ad campaigns that were sniping at each other, like David trying to take down Goliath, and there was a lot of parody, and swiping. There was this trend of taking logos and imagery from popular culture and recasting them within the skateboard world. It was this really fun, fertile explosion of weird creativity within graphics.  And there were a few artists that have come out of that... Ed Templeton is somebody who is recognized as an actual artist. Spike Jonze came out of that moment, too. But there was just this real irreverent ‘fuck you’ attitude that I really responded to.
And also just great art. People were making really weird, interesting stuff. I think part of the thing is that the board itself, the bottom of your skateboard is where the graphics go, and they are therefore immediately destroyed, so there’s this constant recycling of images and demand for new ones, and there’s very little preciousness with them.
Beyond that, there was also definitely a connection to graffiti, which now I’m not that interested in, but when I was a kid, I really liked that connection. Now it drives me crazy, but the conceptual goofiness, I just really loved.
Also, I connect it to comics in a way, because there was a very high-brow/low-brow tension, in the same way I think there is with comics. It was an art form for mass culture, or middle-brow/low-brow culture, but people had ideas, and were pushing the limits. So, you could make an argument that it got very conceptual and Duchampian or something. (laughs)  And there’s the sense that nobody was paying attention. There was no money it; no museums cared or anything. It was just happening unto itself.  
So, in that sense, when I started doing comics, I was doing self-publishing, and it felt very similar, if on a much smaller scale.
Sobel:  A lot of what you’re describing sounds very similar to how the Hernandez brothers talk about their punk experience as teenagers.  
Nilsen: Oh, yeah. Skateboarding culture was very explicitly still connected to punk back then... When I started, the older generation of skaters were those people. They probably were contemporaries of the Hernandez brothers, Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye… They all had skated in the late 70s, early 80s, which was the last time it had been a big deal.  Punk was a huge thing in skateboarding at that time. Everything had skulls all over it. (laughs)
Sobel: Do you still have a connection to skateboarding?
Nilsen: Oh yeah, I still skateboard. I went skateboarding yesterday. I’m an old man, but I’ve been doing it for almost thirty years. There’s no reason for me to give it up, I need to get exercise somehow. (laughs)
It’s something that I’m actually good at and get pleasure from, and it’s still a creative outlet. There’s just nothing like it. It’s just fun. It feels good.  So I’ll do it as long as my body will allow me to.

Sobel: When I look at your books, I don’t necessarily see an obvious influence from skateboarding culture.  
Nilsen: Right.
Sobel: Do you see it in your work?
Nilsen: No. There would be no reason for me to include it, except if I’m drawing something that happened to me skateboarding. It’s a little hard to point to the literal, particular connections, except to say that, that’s the kind of drawing I was doing. I learned to draw the figure partly by drawing skateboarders. When I was in high school, my notebooks were filled with drawings of people skateboarding. Which is a good way to learn to understand gesture, and momentum, and the weight of the figure. I wanted to get those drawings just right, because it was like the next best thing to actually skating. If I was sitting in class, I could get a little of the feeling of going skating by just drawing somebody.
But I think the influence is not concrete. It’s much more the sense of that DIY ethic, and not taking yourself too seriously. Those are the things I think I probably took from it more than anything else.

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