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Will Laren Slurricane
Courtesy the artist

The crown prince of smart-dumb art

Underground comics hope Will Laren talks fairytales, Jean Cocteau, and his new zine Slurricane #8

Remember back in January when we put Will Laren at the top of our list of writers to look out for in 2015? Get this—he isn’t even a writer! Well, he kind of is. He is an artist, but one who makes comics and zines. We put him right at the top because even though he is an art dude, Laren is so wise and funny that his single-panels smack the literary competition right out of the foetid internet water. He’s a prodigious draughtsman of the grotesque, pairing deliciously horrid word with deliciously horrid image with uncanny correctness. He flourishes in his medium. Laren just came out with a brand new zine, the eighth in his bone-tinglingly brilliant Slurricane series. It’s 20 pages of bruising, full colour, risographed perfection. 

We caught up with Laren at his Philadelphia studio and asked him if he could rewind a little. Back up, Will Laren! Who are you and what do you think you’re doing?

Was there a particular artist or show or person who inspired you or energized you towards drawing when you were growing up?

Will Laren: Honestly, and this is a horrible way to start an interview about drawing stuff, I feel like a lot of the people who spoke to me as a child were non-comic people. Visually, I really loved Tintin. But I had major epiphanies when I was in middle school—I remember one guy I really liked was this local punk guy Atom and his Package, who did really nerdy songs about barbecues in winter on sequencers and stuff. He was just so uncool. At the time I was listening to a lot of punk and stuff but I didn’t identify with it at all because I was never really angry. His music wasn’t even very melodic, but it was so unafraid to be stupid while more broadly being intelligent. It was very cathartic for me to really see someone act like an idiot. Really dumb things can be smart sometimes, but they don’t have to be smart all the time. You don’t have to constantly be proving that you’re smart when you’re doing dumb art—that was a very freeing thought to me. And I guess the earliest visual thing I can remember is reading Dragonball comics when I was in third or fourth grade.

What was your educational experience like? Ever had good teachers?

Will Laren: Yeah, I’ve had good teachers. But lot of the teachers that spoke to me, I either didn’t like their art or I didn’t like them as teachers. I learned a lot from the subtractive aspect; I learned a lot by having terrible teachers in college. It’s really easy to see what people are doing when you don’t like their art.

Right, you can find out a lot about work and life by hating people.

Will Laren: Yeah! And really pretentious people aren’t afraid of hurting your feelings, so they sometimes give really good critiques. When I started getting better at drawing in college, I remember this one teacher told me, “You need to start drawing shittier again.” And I hated that, but it made me realise that I was doing something interesting before. I didn’t, like, “return to a naive style”, but I looked back at my old drawings and tried to work with that natural hand. I don’t try to draw poorly. When you don’t draw amazingly you have to figure out what’s working for you and make that into an aesthetic.

So was that a good bit of teaching?!

Will Laren: It wasn’t a particularly elegant statement, but it was what I needed to hear. Before, I was drawing out of necessity. Once you start gaining skills, you can lose style. Once I started learning how to draw, I felt like I had to prove I could draw with every drawing, which is not a very charming or interesting way to work. I guess also, having the confidence to let people misinterpret what I’m doing is important. Because yeah, in some people’s world, I can’t draw, at least the way that they value drawing. You have to be okay with not being everyone’s cup of tea.

Have you always been funny?

Will Laren: I can’t answer that, because it’s going to sound bad. I was always making jokes. I don’t know how well they were landing until later in life. I remember earlier, I had – tale as old as time! – a lot of trouble fitting in, and I remember the first thing that I could hook people on was joking with them. When you’re a really uncool, uncharismatic kid, the easiest way to get in is self-deprecation. You just get in on teasing you with the people who are teasing you. Then you have to wean yourself off of it. It’s very empowering when you start making jokes that aren’t about yourself and people laugh at them. When I made jokes as a toddler, my mom was very encouraging and my dad would never say it was funny. He would always give this diplomatic answer, like “that’s a good rhythm of a joke.” The best thing you can do for a kid is not laugh at their really bad jokes. As much as I love my mom, I can’t trust her because she’s a very supportive person.

You've mentioned that your dad’s into comics. What kind of comics did he have around the house?

Will Laren: He is into super traditional American comics, he had like Jack Kirby around the house. And he was extremely nerdy about it. He donated all his comics to the comic museum that the guy who started Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles created in Vermont. He just didn’t assume his sons would be into it. He figured “this will live and die with me.” But my earliest comic memory is of hanging out with him reading Maus in the early ‘90s, and it going way over my head and asking him why they were all creatures instead of humans.

So when you started to draw a lot, how did he react?

Will Laren: I do not think my dad thinks I’m funny. I don’t know if that will look heartbreaking written down. He’s always really supportive, like “Oh, it seems like a lot of people like your stuff online.” Which I think is freeing! Something that can kill your artistic impulses is cool parents.

“In some people’s world, I can’t draw, at least the way that they value drawing. You have to be okay with not being everyone’s cup of tea” – Will Laren

What is your favourite movie?

Will Laren: Oh man. Let me just list off a bunch. I really like Terry Gilliam, I love Baron Munchausen (1988). I really like Black Orpheus (1959). Oh, and I really love Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946).

All these movies have a very dreamlike quality.

Will Laren: Yeah, Black Orpheus has a very dreamlike feel to it. The way it’s shot also has the otherworldly dreaminess of La belle et la bȇte, but also there’s this sense that it might all be a series of visual coincidences, or maybe he really journeyed to the underworld. Oh man, and the hall of records with the paper blowing about. I love movies where the world isn’t a fantasy version of our world, it’s something new.

Black Orpheus and La belle et la bȇte are fairy stories or myths, so its like creating a new story out of an old one.

Will Laren: Orpheus is such an old story. The story of Orpheus being about artistic exceptionalism is so interesting: the idea that if you’re good enough at what you do, the laws of the world don’t apply to you. It’s a very good idea for a story. Also the idea of a flawed, arrogant character—it’s a great story. Also Belle is the same: even though he says to come back in three days, she comes back in four.

Have you ever seen The Thing? It’s smart, dumb, gross, hilarious but kind of moving – which is kind of like your comics.

Will Laren: The newer one? That is arguably the most disgusting monster of the past fifty years. And you only see it once. There’s a theory on the internet that at the end of the movie, when he hands the flask to the guy, its full of gasoline.

Does he do anything similar to that in the rest of the movie? Why gasoline instead of any other liquid?

Will Laren: Because then he would know that the monster was still in the base. Remember how it impersonated the dog? Have you guys ever seeBad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans?

No.

Will Laren: It’s a Werner Herzog movie with Nicolas Cage as a crack-addicted police lieutenant. It’s the best. He shoots this crooked cop after smoking crack, and he keeps shooting, and the other guys are like “What are you doing, he’s dead” and Nicolas Cage says “His soul is still dancing.” And then it pans over to the sixty-year-old dead Italian bookie and his soul is like breakdancing and doing the worm over his body. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.

Let’s talk about your new zine! It’s in colour right? 

Will Laren: Yes! Number 8!

What does it feel like to do something eight times? To be building on a longer term project? 

Will Laren: I had this huge anxiety about working from photographs: like, is it art? I felt like I should be like Orpheus, just producing original genius from the universe instead of cribbing from stock photos. For me, the biggest problem is overthinking things. The easiest thing for me was my first zine, just photocopying it at my college library. It came from this very arrogant, un-noble place – I just thought it would be cool to say “Oh, I’m working on my zine.” It rolled off the tongue. God, I sound like an asshole. All my friends were in bands in high school and I couldn’t play an instrument—I just liked the idea of making a physical object. I like reading other people’s comics, and I like putting them out into the world. I feel like artists have to hook people in the outside world and then they go can go look for your stuff online. It’s the weird contradiction of working on the internet.

And it’s so bad and awkward, the rigmarole of approaching the table and the will I, won’t I thing.

Will Laren: Oh, that’s the worst. And its the worst when artists expect people to buy their zines and complain when they don’t. I mean, I know why people don’t buy my zines – there’s mad gross shit in there! Let me rephrase that. By doing polarising comics, its easier to understand why people wouldn’t like it. But I hate the way it creates this culture at zine shows where people feel they have to apologise if they don’t buy it. Don’t apologise, man! Just do it or don’t do it! You don’t have to sell me the dream.

Slurricane #8 is available now