Craig Yoe Talks ICON, Krazy Kat, and Whether Today’s Cartoonists Ever Get Laid

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The self-described pervert – see interview below – gets what he deserves for revealing Joe Shuster's secret identity. Photo by Adrian Buckmaster.

Craig Yoe has been called a “celebrated designer” by no less an authority than The Onion. Formerly the Creative Director/VP/GM of the Muppets, Craig is co-creative director of YOE! Studio, and his lively book layouts, such as for his Arf series about comics history, are elegant examples of form following fun. His controversial “Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-Creator Joe Shuster” generated coverage from The New York Times to Hustler and from NPR’s Fresh Air to Fox News. It’s also in development as a major motion picture, with Craig as consulting producer. He recently acquired his own publishing imprint, Yoe Books, through IDW, and still maintains a long-running daily blog.

Craig and I have been unindicted co-conspirators in various activities for awhile now. He contributed to my book “The Education of a Comics Artist,” co-edited with Steven Heller. And as a major comic art collector and lender to the hotly-debated “Masters of American Comics” exhibition, I included him in my panel discussion about the show at the San Diego Comic-Con. He’ll be appearing at this year’s Comic-Con later this month, as well as next week’s ICON illustration conference in Pasadena. Since we usually occupy separate ends of the country, I decided to take advantage of his West Coast visit to get the latest Yoe lowdown.

"Arf Forum" pages, with Yoe's free-form funnies on the right.

Dooley: Yoe! Just who do you think you are? A cartoonist/illustrator who writes? An editor who designs?

Yoe: Mostly I’m just a guy who takes out the garbage. Tuesday’s regular garbage. Thursday’s recycling. Between those tasks, though, I’m producing books about the amazing and wondrous history of comics and cartoonists. I like to do the whole shooting match: collect the rare materials, research the history, write it all up, and design the book. And then pimp it … which brings us to this interview, thank you.

I want to quickly acknowledge that I don’t do this alone. My incredibly talented and dedicated wife Clizia works alongside me in all those endeavors. And we have many good friends that help in every aspect, too. I always feel a little guilty in having my name alone on the cover when I know that I couldn’t have begun to do these books without the extreme interest, hard work, and great kindness of others.

All this activity has limited my time to actually draw comics myself … that and a life-long cartoonist’s block that viciouslymanicallydemonically crushes my poor cartoonist legs and other appendages with a cruel, heavy sledgehammer.

Dooley: My sympathies to your various appendages. You’ve mentioned before that Bradbury Thompson was a friend, and that his example encouraged you to be a rule-breaker. Can you talk a bit more about your own design sensibility?

Yoe: I try to find a balance between sophistication and fun, in type, palettes, layout, and materials. Sophistication and fun are opposites in many people’s minds. But I like to respectfully present comics as art, while always keeping in mind that they are – or should be – F-U-N. God save us from dry, academic, pretentious, or even bleak approaches to writing about – and designing books about – comics. Fuck that shit!

My inspiration? Comic books! An integration of words and pictures that tell a story. Even in the introductory pages, I’m inspired by comic books, in layout and in balancing type and images.

And to compete with digital downloads, I attempt to create “Art Objects,” with a sensual – hell, an erotic! – experience that you simply can’t get from pixels. I do a lot with special effects, interesting paper choices, tipped-in plates, sizes, shapes, varnishes, ribbons, metallic inks, etc. I take the term “coffee table art book” seriously. I want the owner to actually display mine as a conversation piece and a statement … fashion or otherwise.

A 350-page Gross book, written and designed by Craig Yoe, and the dust jacket to Gross's rare, first-edition 1930 graphic novel.

Dooley: One of your latest statements, “The Complete Milt Gross: Comic Books and Life Story,” is a critical hit. John Canemaker praised you for the design as well as for having resurrected “a nearly forgotten master of cartoon mayhem.” But, c’mon: a bunch of sketchy drawings from bygone days, with a bunch of characters who spout Yiddish dialect … that’s not really relevant to today’s culture, right?

Yoe: Banana oil! I don’t think there’s an “Old-Skool” cartoonist that I’ve done a book on who is more modern than Milt Gross! His insane, loud, whacked-out comics are even ahead of our time. No one – past or present – has touched the hem of his garment for unrestricted piss-in-public rebellion and zaniness. I laugh out loud every time I even look at one of his drawings. And if we ever needed laughs, we sure do need them now! What a pioneer Gross was, in early animation, in beginning newspaper comic strips, in autobiographical comics, in doing book reviews via comics. And, of course, he did a seminal graphic novel, “He Done Her Wrong,” which is still the funniest… maybe the only funny one! Graphic novels today are too damn serious!

Yoe Bo
oks are all about Me n' Me… n' nepotism! Alexa Kitchen better watch her back.

Dooley: You’ve also been producing art books about Steve Ditko, Boody Rogers, Dan DeCarlo, and George Herriman, among others, and The Golden Collection of Klassic Krazy Kool Kid Komics just hit the stores. And you’ve got more, on Barney Google, Popeye, and Felix the Cat, in the works. Just what keeps you living in the funny page past?

Yoe: You mean besides the groupies and the untold wealth in being a comics historian? It’s funny, I’m approaching 60, but when I was just 17 – you know what I mean – I wrote, designed, and printed fanzines about the history of comics in my basement. I’ve simply returned to my roots. And I love doing books about comics. I have such a good time it’s probably not legal. But my motivation – now I’m going to sound a bit pretentious myself – I’m on a mission to save comics!

With only a very few exceptions, current comics bore me senseless. Or worse yet, they’re freaking depressing in their style or content. Comics used to be funny, inspiring, and very beautifully drawn. For sure, they didn’t take themselves too seriously. Maybe my books will ZIP, POW the brains of some young cartoonists … show them how to make comics that are fun again. I do plan to publish some contemporary material in the Yoe Books line when the right, great cartoonist comes along with a terrific book that has the values of the Old Guard. I can’t wait! Actually, I may not have to wait too long: my own twin stepdaughters, Vickie and Lizzie Savanella, are cooking up a graphic novel, “Me n’ Me,” as we speak.

Craig Yoe's "Clean/Dirty" cover and Billy DeBeck's 1936 illustration for the 21 Club.

Dooley: You’re also getting hot and heavy into erotica. In addition to your scandalous book about Joe “Superman” Shuster’s fetish art illustrations you’ve done “Clean Cartoonists’ Dirty Drawings”and “The Best of Sexology,” excerpts from America’s first sex magazine. Now are you pandering to the public here, or are you just depraved?

Yoe: Uh, both? Sex sells and I’m a pervert. It works out nicely that way. When I got excited about comics in the 1960s, the underground guys like R. Crumb, Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso, and even Wally Wood, often had drawings of a sexual nature. Again, as part of my “mission,” I’m showing that the old guard had sex in the comics! Why don’t today’s cartoonists do more along this line? Are they sexually repressed? Have none of them ever gotten laid, so they can’t speak authoritatively on this subject? I do wonder.

There is the overwrought “sexual”ity of today’s superheroes, with their skin-tight spandex costumes hugging the male superheroes’ engorged members and the female superheroes’ bubble boobs. I abhor that shiny shit. Everything about today’s superheroes disgusts me. And it bugs the hell out of me when people hear I’m into comics and they assume that means I like today’s vomit-inducing “super” “hero” “comic” books!

James Montgomery Flagg, 1919.

Dooley:The Great Anti-War Cartoons” exposes a more somber side of Yoe, the author … what made you decide to take a stab at such a book?

Yoe: I’m again going back to my youth. I first got turned on to the history of comic books after being exposed to the brilliant Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s Spider-man. But, I didn’t get sucked into just being some Marvel superhero zombie. I started to collect and read all kinds of old comic books. Funny animals to horror. And then my interest quickly spread to the whole field and long history of comics and cartoons. I was fascinated by everything from caveman cartoonist drawings to the 1860s to the then-present. Comic books, comic strips, panel gag cartoons, animation, and political cartoons. When the other guys from my high school were in the back of their cars at drive-ins getting a handful of young, soft teen boobs, I was in the dark basement of the library, groping for old, hardbound ‘toon books. And I found a nice pair of books about the radical Communist publication of the 1920s, “The Masses.”

The books were filled with cartoons by these rabid Socialist cartoonists … Art Young, Robert Minor, Boardman Robinson. With their convention-breaking, hard-hitting graphics these Pinko-Commies made me a lifelong non-conformist and passionate pacifist. I reprinted those “Masses” images on stacks of flyers and passed them out on the sidewalks of my high school, then my college campus and in front of draft boards and at anti-war rallies I organized.

And yet again, this ties into my mission of showing great cartoons that will hopefully inspire. Today’s political cartoonists are ball-less wonders, with their joke-y gags. We don’t need silly jesters, we need powerful prophets. Where are the Thomas Nasts and George Herrimans of today? The lousy lightweight political cartoons and the putrid postage stamp size comic strips in newspapers are an abhorrence. Get some strong cartoonists in there to hook up a car battery to the old publishers’ nipples to wake ‘em up! Put political cartoons on page one, give every comic a full page on Sunday, and have a staff of cartoonists illustrating copy, just like in the old glory days. Maybe then those papers can become vibrant and relevant again!

There is some hope, with Patrick McDonnell’s “Mutts” and Richard Thompson’s “Cul de Sac” and a couple of others. We need more strips like that! I haven’t seen any good new political cartoonists, but then I tired of looking. Did you see the powerful messages and incredible draftsmanship of the vintage cartoonists in my book? Those fuckers had something to say,
and they could draw!

Joe Shuster not only co-created Superman for DC Comics, he also took a whack at illustrating S&M scenarios.

Dooley: It’s amusing, uh, inspiring to know that someone still cares so much about daily newspapers. Now about your trip to Southern California, where hordes of groupies are, of course, anxiously awaiting your arrival. And according to ICON’s program guide, your Friday afternoon, July 16th, presentation will include “licentiousness.” Details, please!

Yoe: Me? Licentious? Well, the folks behind the conference foolishly asked me to make a multi-media visual presentation on “Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-Creator Joe Shuster.” It will be great fun… as much as you can have with your clothes on! The Suicide Girls won’t be in the buff and acting out scenes from the book, as they were at my previous presentations. There won’t be any actual whips and chains and spanking. For that, we’ll have to wait until the illustrators have been plied with those free drinks and we retire to my room, behind closed doors…

An exclusive preview of an unpublished Herriman painting, inscribed to British actor Roland Young, which will be included in Craig Yoe's "Krazy Kat and the Art of George Herriman: A Celebration."

Dooley: And what can we expect at Comic-Con?

Yoe: I’m excited about the Krazy Kat emphasis this year. I let the good folk at the convention know that it was the 100th anniversary of when Ignatz first beaned Krazy with an inanimate object. The Con movers and shakers very kindly and enthusiastically invited me to produce a 15-page feature on the subject for the souvenir book. And they generously afforded me the opportunity to put together a big panel celebrating the Year of the Kat.

I’ll be previewing my upcoming Abrams ComicArts book, “Krazy Kat and the Art of George Herriman: A Celebration,” that gathers rare and unpublished comics and paintings by Krazy’s creator, with lots of previously unseen photos. I’m really excited that I’ll be showing the world premiere of a home movie of George Herriman at this panel, which will be on Friday afternoon, July 23rd. After the panel, we’ll be going to the booth of my angels at IDW and having a tea party in support of another book on Herriman I did this year, “Krazy and Ignatz in Tiger Tea.” There’ll be Con-exclusive Krazy and Ignatz tea mugs I designed for the participants. It’s gonna be… Krazy!

Dooley: Any parting words of wisdom?

Yoe: The only good cartoonists are dead cartoonists!