Smash Pages Q&A: Ben Passmore on ‘Daygloayhole’ and more

The creator of ‘Your Black Friend’ discusses his work for Fantagraphics’ ‘Now’ anthology, The Nib, his influences and much more.

Ben Passmore’s short comic Your Black Friend was a sensation when it was published in 2016. It was nominated for an Eisner Award, won an Ignatz Award, was on NPR’s 2017 list of 100 Favorite Comics and Graphic Novels, and was turned into an animated short film. Passmore has become a regular contributor to The Nib and many other outlets, but for people who have been reading Passmore for years, this recent political work has been something of a departure for him. He first came to notice with Daygloayhole, which is a very different kind of comic, but shares a lot of the same sensibilities and ideas that motivate his political and essayistic comics.

This year saw the publication of Your Black Friend and Other Strangers, which collects a number of short comics by Passmore. Silver Sprocket is publishing a print version of Daygloayhole, the second issue of which is out this summer. Passmore has a comic in the current issue of the Fantagraphics anthology Now and has a comic in the June/July issue of The Believer.

How did you come to comics?

When I was young my babysitter’s husband passed me a copy of Spawn #1. He was like a blerd before blerds were blerds. I thought Todd McFarlane must be black because Spawn was black. I liked that comic. It was gritty. I think I’d seen Spider-Man, but I was like, this dude’s got spikes. That was really the start for me. I started drawing my own terrible ripoffs of Spawn and staple them together. That’s how it started. I started wanting to be really serious about it out of high school. I ended up signing up for art school. That’s when I started thinking, maybe I won’t have to do manual labor, maybe I could do this. That’s where I took it seriously.

You have a new short comic “The Vampire” in Now #3. How did that come about?

I have this book that I’m working on for Czap Books that’s coming out next year. That’s going to be a genre horror comic and I wrote that story to play with this vampire character. I wanted to try genre stuff since I started working with Ezra Clayton Daniels on this book Upgrade Soul. He’s got a deal with Fanta for that to come out. He’s really into retooling genre stories and he’s really into hard scifi. We worked on a 150-page Cronenberg-inspired comic about gentrification that’s coming out hopefully this year. He got me into the idea of doing genre comics so I wanted to write about a vampire but think about vampirism in this broader sense. There’s this theory book called Whitherboro, which talks about the way that Western societies extract cultural and metaphysical energy from formerly enslaved people and marginalized people. I thought about this type vampire in New Orleans, where that happens a lot. The city government and tourist industry get a lot of money by extracting the culture produced by marginalized peoples in that city. He never sucks anyone’s blood, but he’s still pretty deadly.

How did you end up in Now?

RJ Casey, who used to run Yeti Press, works with Fantagraphics. He wanted to get that Cronenberg-inspired graphic novel that me and Ezra did in front of Eric Reynolds at Fantagraphics, and Eric hit me up. I guess he had read some of the comics that I did and he asked me to contribute to the anthology. He was real nice about it. He’s been asking me since before issue #1 of Now came out and I’ve just been busy. Shout out to RJ who made it happen, and Eric for being very supportive.

People who know you for Your Black Friend or the stuff you do for the The Nib probably see this as a departure.

It’s interesting. I can always tell the people who have been following me since Daygloayhole was on Tumblr and people who know me from The Nib or Your Black Friend. No shame, it’s just interesting. People who know me from Your Black Friend and The Nib comics are like, what’s this weird stuff with monsters? This is kind of arty for you, are you trying to change your style up? I’ve been doing that arty monster stuff for a while, it’s more recently I’ve been doing explicitly political non-fiction comics. I like doing both, but it’s funny that people think that I’m making a departure.

You have two very different kinds of work. I’m sure there’s plenty of overlap, but lots of people who only know one.

I mean, I think there’s a theoretical overlap, but I like being flexible. To make money in comics you have to do more than one thing. [laughs]

I talked to Zack Soto a little while ago and we were talking about how there’s a lot of artists our age who read Marvel and DC and Image and Heavy Metal and manga and make work that’s really an amalgam of those influences. You guys are both a part of that.

I agree. It’s interesting because I feel like I recognize people’s work more in the art comic world who really liked superheroes, Moebius, read lots of issues of Heavy Metal and I think you can really see it in their work. It’s weird being at these shows sometimes because I have very different influences than a lot of other cartoonists. It took me a while to realize there’s a bunch of people who are making comics but aren’t coming from that background. Which is fine. We come from different worlds.

I was talking with my friend Terrell Cannon, who’s another one coming from that capes comics and Heavy Metal background. He’s doing something called Weed Priests right now which is very Heavy Metal and Moebius inspired. I think of him as someone who has a very superhero comics sensibility, but the thing that he’s doing is really weird. It’s dope. One of the things that bums me out about art comics is that it feels very peripheral culturally. Since before Your Black Friend, I would get asked to be on the “black comics panels” at shows. You know, the intentions are good but the premise is kinda weird. You’re on a panel with people who have a similar amount of melanin but we don’t do the same stuff. There’s a lot more people of color reading superhero comics than are reading what :01 or Fantagraphics is putting out. That doesn’t speak to a shallowness in those communities, it’s what they’re exposed to. I didn’t see Optic Nerve in my local video store that sold comics when I was a kid. I came up with X-Men or whatever Top Cow garbage was coming out at the time. I feel like people who have a more superhero sensibility in some way are a good bridge. I value all comics. I read some real weird shit but I do like seeing the people who obviously came up with superheroes and Heavy Metal and Moebius.

Could you talk a little about Daygloayhole. I’m not entirely sure how to explain it and I’ve actually read it. [laughs]

[laughs] Me, too. [laughs]

But seriously, Daygloayhole feels very much like this raw version of what you’re interested in, how you think, what you love.

I think that’s a good read. I started doing it without an expectation that anyone would really read it. There’s some old old stuff that I put on Tumblr that’s never made it into any of the issues. When I started it, I realized that the comics I was making before just didn’t feel like me. They didn’t feel flexible. I was listening to a  radio show and they were talking about the benefits of episodic series like Star Trek and how they allowed for kids to fantasize about putting themselves in as characters in their play. That you could imagine this expanded world. I got connected to the idea of trying to make a place rather than a solid story. Which maybe accounts for the weird narrative turns in Daygloayhole.

I was thinking about that and this was I think 2009 or 2010 and I was living in New Orleans. The way that I think about New Orleans at that time was maybe similar to what it was like for people who lived in New York in the seventies. It felt very open. It felt like there was a lot of tragedy but also a lot of possibility. You felt a lot of autonomy in the city in a way that I feel like a lot of people don’t feel in the cities that they live in. There wasn’t a whole lot of mediation. Like the government didn’t have a lot of control over a lot of things. I know now that the government had a whole lot of plans to gentrify the city that I didn’t see. We had hints because they started shutting down public housing pretty quickly, but the mindset of a lot of punks, the subculture I was in, was New Orleans is like this playground. It’s something we can mold. I understand where they were coming from but it was very fetishistic. That had a lot to do with what Daygloayhole ended up turning into. Taking the post-apocalyptic aesthetic and putting it on New Orleans sort of in a sarcastic way. In a way that was a critique. The first issue has a performance artist that kills himself and like the phoenix is transmogrified into an art entrepreneur to redevelop this “wasteland.” I think it’s a joke that works in a lot of cities, but definitely works in New Orleans. Someone will come in riding freight trains and a couple years later is a subcontractor flipping houses. It’s one of the few cities where you can see something like that.

I was going to say that anarchism and punk are threads running through your work.

I have definitely been in the punk subculture for a while, though I haven’t consumed and enjoyed punk music for a long time. Anarchism has been a part of my life basically since high school. I caught a felony charge when I was sixteen and was probated to this weird reform school that I initially thought was going to be dope when I heard about it. In my mind I was like it’ll be all uniforms and designer drugs! There were sort of uniforms, but definitely no designer drugs. [laughs] In the school me and my best friend started this insurrection that turned into a commune. It wasn’t  based on much rhetoric, we’d never read any political work or seen a commune before. He was a punk but he wasn’t reading political theory. Since then I’ve identified my ideals through anarchism. It’s a utopian series of ideals that have changed a lot since the 2000’s in a lot of ways. There’s a group of people who identify with it and they’ve got a lot of good ideas and a lot of stupid ways of trying to enact those ideas – just like everybody else. I’ve been in the anarcho-punk bubble for a long time, and just as a black man involved in punk and anarchism – that don’t have a whole lot of black people in them– I’ve thought about all sort of ways that people participate in it and the ways I participate in it, both good and bad.

The Nib has been great because they let me write about it in ways that I think I was resistant to writing about it before. I want to draw monsters and scifi and the idea of drawing a protest and then writing my ideas about it seemed really boring at first but it’s been nice to talk about these things. I think more people are into aspects of anarchism than self-identify as anarchist or want to read all the dense Euro-centric theories. I don’t feel like people need to read that stuff, but I’ve read a bunch of it and there are interesting things to think about when thinking about grass roots movements like Black Lives Matter or with the March for our Lives. There’s a lot of people who draw on the Civil Rights and nonproliferation movements, but there’s been a lot of critiques about those strategies since then that people don’t really think about that much. It feels like there’s been a lot of lessons lost to time. The Nib comics are a chance for me to talk about the good and bad that I’ve experienced and what  I think about.

It is soapboxing, but there aren’t a lot of people trying to engage with some of these conversations and critiques that you are.

Thanks. I try to propose conversations that the mostly liberal Nib audience may not be thinking about. I think that for the Left they really fetishize facts or some kind of government intervention in this way that I think have proved to be unreliable when it comes to dealing with Trump. There’s a lot of people that don’t have a lot of self-critique about the benefits and downsides of heavy government intervention in these specific ways that ignores the inevitable oppression that comes with the existence of government.

You did a great piece for The Nib last year about protest and you got at the idea that a lot of protests feel more like theater. Which is fine and has a place, but it’s not necessarily effective or what people are going for.

For sure. I feel like it’s interesting because for anarchists during the the anti-globalization Free Trade stuff there was a lot of people that would make puppets. Theater was this big part of the Left in a way that people weren’t ashamed of, but it really failed. Large mobilizations like that have been pretty much defamed by Anarchists but the Left will really show up for them still. You end up just running from the police all day. Though I will say that one of my first large marches was an anti-Iraq War march in DC and it had a profound effect on me. Not the march so much, I followed the black bloc because they were going to smash up a Starbucks! A lot of the revisionism around the Civil Rights Movement feels very convenient. It’s been good to read the March series. I’ve written my critiques around a lot of the ideas around the Civil Rights Movement but the thing that can’t be denied, that needs to be appreciated, is the level of danger that people subjected themselves to in order to make less contentious spaces for black people in our country, particularly in the South. The fact that you would go to a certain lunch counter or movie theater and get your head caved in by a cop or an angry worker or a racist bystander is wild. I’ve had my share of run-ins with racism and racists but what they went through is a million times crazier. Those people put themselves in danger, they committed their lives to these ideals, which is very impressive. It needs to be respected, especially in the era of Facebook activism and Facebook revolutionaries. But when people do a sit-in now, the utility of it is not there anymore. We need to think of some new ways that’s in continuity with what people are trying to do based on the barriers white supremacy creates in 2018. One of the shortcomings of the Civil Rights Movement is the professionalization of activists. So now that’s what people are trying to do. They  self identify as an organizer or activist and put it on their tinder and their facebook. People didn’t want to be in this position where they were putting their lives at risk, they don’t want to make liberation their life. Professionalizing activism or making it a hobby keeps your politics from becoming who you are. For people fighting for Civil Rights they used activism as a utility to get to a kind of life that felt more harmonious and safe, it wasn’t to beef up your resume.

The main problem with applying theater to activism very literally is that it totally missed the strategy of it. People will do a sit-in like Martin Luther King, but is your sit in trying to shut down commerce like Martin was trying to do? I’ll go to so many marches and they’re like, stay on the sidewalks brother. This is not actually an application of what they were trying to do in the Civil Rights Movement. You’re letting business continue and that’s not the point. Martin Luther King comparatively had very conservative aspirations for people. At this point even Elon Musk is suggesting things like everyone should just get a thousand dollars a month. Elon Musk is not a radical, he’s just a rich dude. It’s not people’s fault that this is their go-to. People generally will act out the strategies that have been validated by society. It’s not totally their fault, but I think that people can feel how satisfying it is. That they don’t try for something else once they feel dissatisfied I think is their real failure.

Just to end talking about comics, you mentioned those two books you’ve finished, but what are you working on now or working on next?

I’m working on more issues of Daygloayhole. It’s coming out quarterly. Issue #2 is being reprinted and coming out in July. #3 and 4 will come out a couple months after that. Then it’ll be done. I might do some spinoff series, we’ll see. I have a book coming out with Annie Koyama in probably 2020 called Sports Is Hell. Way more Nib stuff. I’ve been talking with them about doing short things maybe once a month. I’ve been talking to them about being able to travel to things. There’s things happening all over and I’d like to be able to go and do some interviews and experience them and write about them.

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