Smash Pages Q&A: Gabe Fowler on Funhouse: An Interactive Book Fair

The proprietor of Desert Island Comics in Brooklyn discusses the upcoming event, scheduled for March 24-25.

Gabe Fowler is not a cartoonist, but he is a one of the people who makes the comics world run. He’s the proprietor of Desert Island Comics in Brooklyn, one of the great comic stores in New York, and which Fowler has made a hub of comics activity. He’s one of the organizers of Comic Arts Brooklyn, the annual comics show, and he also publishes Smoke Signal, a quarterly comics anthology, and published Resist!, the two comics edited by Francoise Mouly and Nadja Spiegelman last year.

Fowler is one of the organizers of Funhouse: An Interactive Book Fair, which will take place in Manhattan on March 24-25. The event isn’t just another comics show and isn’t quite a workshop, but rather something else, and I reached out to Fowler to ask about what the event will be and trying to make a different kind of show.

Funhouse is described as an interactive book fair, what does that mean?

Guests come to the fair and enter a carnival-like environment, where artists are running stands similar to carnival booths. Guests can interact with each of the artists to produce a page of artwork through a drawing game or interactive moment with the artist. The guest accumulates those pages and puts them in a huge Dr. Seuss-ian binding machine, smoke comes out, and a finished book comes out the other side. So each guest essentially makes a book with the artists at the show! Also, there’s a general store within the fair selling books, prints, and artifacts by all of the artists.

Where did this idea come from?

We’re trying to do something new. I’ve done bookfairs in New York City for years and I’m very happy with the way they’ve gone and what they’ve done for the comics community. They’ve gotten bigger every year. The Drawing Center is a venerable institution that has really championed the art of drawing since the 1970‘s. They approached me and said, we want to do a bookfair and we’d like to work with comics artists so maybe we could collaborate. I immediately said, bookfairs are great and I love them but I almost feel like there’s too many of them now. Adding another one is a challenge to make it something that’s beneficial to both the artists and the guests who come to the show. I wanted to give them all something new, a different type of experience, a different way of encountering artwork, a different way to understand the way that books are made and what is involved in the making of artwork.

Comics are so tilted towards the consumer that most comics readers – especially mainstream comics readers – think of them more as a form of entertainment than as an artform. I wanted to have an interactive art making experience that feels more like art making and will ultimately make the audience understand the effort required to make a book object. We’re not going to be making comic books at the show, it’s going to be more experimental than that. The book that you get at Funhouse will be not necessarily something you sit down and read later, it’s going to be more of an artifact produced by your experience. The show isn’t about reading necessarily. It’s more about drawing and about almost drawing as performance art – in the context of a surrealist carnival, which to me sounds like the most fun I ever had.

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It does sound like a lot of fun. When you started thinking about this, who do you approach, how approach them? Because this is something closer to running a workshop than tabling at a show.

It’s definitely a nontraditional fusion of a book fair and an art-making workshop, but it’s not really either of those things! We are aiming for a metaphor of an amusement park, where there is a diversity of rides that all seek to transform you physically, turn you around and upside down, exhaust you and put a smile on your face. At Funhouse, the amusement park is a book factory and the rides are the pages!

Myself and Molly Gross from the Drawing Center sought out a diverse group innovative artists with visually interesting work and a leaning towards abstract thought. Together, we met in group salon nights at the Drawing Center and at Desert Island to brainstorm the concepts for inventing a new kind of fair, and I worked to synthesize these ideas into a project we could physically build. Essentially everything about planning this fair has been done the hard way, because that’s a path new new ideas.

Guests to the fair can interact at whatever level they chose. Let me give you an example of one of the booths. Matthew Thurber is a brilliant cartoonist and a friend who immediately had the idea to make a “pencil suit”. What’s a pencil suit? He said, “I’ll take a suit, get thousands of pencils and sharpen them  ll and I’ll be like a porcupine man but in a suit made of pencils”. I said, okay, you should do that. I’m not sure exactly how he’ll do this but he’s going to have a blank piece of paper which he will rub all over himself – or maybe the guest will do this – and then you get a scribble drawing. It’s just a scribble drawing, but that’s the story of you meeting the pencil man. That will be a page in your book. It’s a complete abstraction, but it’s related to your experience at the show. Some of the drawings will be way more figurative, but some of them will be crazy things like that.

You’re also going to have cutouts and funhouse mirrors and other things.

I’ve been making a series of comic foregrounds with artist. No one knows this terminology but everyone knows what these things are – it’s a giant life size illustration with a hole cut out, through which you stick your head and someone takes your picture. I’ve been making those over the past year with different artists and they’re all hilarious!  They’re artworks with which regular people can interact in a very literal sense. The concept of the comic foreground is over a hundred years old and those were developed at Coney Island back in the day when they used to have photo studios at Coney Island.

It’s more of a funhouse or a party for guests.

Part of the interest in comic books are the glorious, ridiculous characters that are in comics. That has played out in mainstream comics culture as cosplay and dressing up like your favorite character, but it also has a different less explored past which I feel like started with the Dadaists and Surrealists which is the idea of a costume party. The idea of Halloween and costume parties has been commercialized to the extent that you go to Walgreens and look at which branded character do you want to be this year. Whereas this is an opportunity to be creative – like the pencil suit man. It’s an opportunity to use art making to transform yourself, instead of approaching art as spectator sport.

All of these ideas happened organically through collaboration, and the wildness of these ideas is what excites me. Attending this event is about witnessing and participating in that. Every person that comes through the door has a chance to be an active member. It’s as simple as any ride you could go on at an amusement park. The cyclone roller coaster is a beautiful sculpture; you could just stand there and look at it. But you also can get in line and go on the thing and take the ride and transform yourself through participating in that experience. Riding the Cyclone is totally different from looking at it. We’re trying to take book lovers – people who would be perfectly happy to sit on their couch and read a book – and put them into this playdoh fun factory where they’re suddenly creating an artwork.

As you’re talking about Coney Island, I keep thinking about Little Nemo, which was influenced by carnival and circuses and is about entering these crazy worlds and you want to do that with Funhouse.

Popular culture has become very autocratic. A bunch of people get together and create this spectacle – whether it’s a movie or a comic or whatever – and it’s hammered into you injected into your brain. Windsor McCay’s Little Nemo comic was pop culture, but it was also actual surrealism. The comics are about dreaming. The whole subject matter of the Little Nemo comic is about being asleep and your subconscious fantasies; crazy ideas in your mind that you’re expected to suppress in your waking life. Coney Island and the Funhouse bookfair are essentially surrealist – they want to help you access your subconscious to produce unexpected results.

Besides all that you have some artists from Latvia, Kûs!, who are coming over and teaching workshop. Do you want to say a little about who they are and what they’ll be doing?

Kûs! is a very small but brilliant publisher in Latvia. Artist Oskars Pavlovskis of Kuš! will run an immersive comic drawing workshop within Funhouse, focused on the creation of short experimental comic stories based around the FUNHOUSE theme. The Kuš! workshop will happen in two three-hour sessions, with limited admission and and additional entry fee. Participants will take part in creating their own self-published comic zine, which will be printed and assembled during the workshop with each participant receiving a copy.

So what do people need to know about Funhouse?

It’s the 24th and 25th of March, cost ten dollars, and includes a slate of programming called Sideshow, organized by Matthew James-Wilson of FORGE art magazine. Sideshow will include live performances by participating artists, panel discussions, and a interactive drawing game with the audience. And hey, you get a one of a kind book, hand made by over twenty artists. What a steal! Check out the details on our site at tinyurl.com/funhousebookfair

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