Tuesday, July 07, 2020

José Alaniz and “The Phantom Zone”: A Comic Collection of Catastrophic Proportions! Interviewed by Fabrizio Lacarra Ramirez – July 5, 2020

A fresh addition to the Amatl Comix series comes in the form of an eclectic compilation featuring José Alaniz’s best work: “The Phantom Zone and Other Stories”. This bundle stays true to its front-cover promise of ‘¡Pulse-Pounding Acción!’ with snappy, vibrant writing and a refusal to commit to any tone for too long. Any self-deprecating or heart-wrenching anecdote is swiftly followed by a zinger from the talking cat Seymour; entire chapters jumping restlessly between the two. Alaniz will punch you in the gut and then take you out for ice cream. Stupendously funny, terribly macabre, and stylistically enveloping, what we are presented in this author’s “Phantom Zone” is an experimental buffet of 5-star dishes.

From the big and busy streets of Seattle to the intimate, homesick memories of his home in old Edinburg, Alaniz opens to the reader ephemeral rifts of suffering and catharsis.

I would have loved to discuss the insides of this collection with Alaniz over a tall glass of brew, (or a modest cup of joe if that’s more his style) but given the current state of the world, we have devised a scheme for communication the likes of which defy the very concept of the current quarantine. What follows is an interview of author, artist, and professor José Alaniz through the modern telegram, otherwise known as the World Wide Web.

FABRIZIO LACARRA RAMIREZ: It’s clear you love superhero comics, and you included such work of your own design in this collection through the story The Texan and Chemo-Sabe, but what made you want to focus on a smaller, more personal story like the one of Chip?

JOSÉ ALANIZ: As noted in my introduction, I had started a comic strip with my friend Luke Garza called Celibate By Default. When that wasn’t working out, I revamped and repurposed the original concept myself. This was back in the early 90s, when I was working at the UT newspaper The Daily Texan, and trying out different strips all the time. The pressure to come up with something day in and day out led me to experiment with a lot of ideas! I had already produced The Texan and Chemo-Sabe; Joey, about a multiverse-hopping creature (which gave me an excuse to throw in many of my old ideas, settings and characters, like Otto the Super-Powered Bobcat, from my high school strip days); the autobiographical Electric Youth; and random strips about “Ervin the Cannibal,” among other things. This was happening at the end of a golden age for strips in the Texan, with outstanding cartoonists like Chris Ware, Tom King, Jeanette Moreno, Van Garrett, Robert Rodríguez, Marc Trujillo, John Keen, Corey Koleman, Walt Holcombe, the list goes on. Truly an extraordinary era.

The Phantom Zone came about, I guess, mostly as a way to differentiate what I was doing from those masterful people. I told one long episodic story in about 100 strips. True, Van was already doing that at the Texan, with his Burnt Orange Blues (that series lasted over five years, if I recall). Only after the strip got going did I start throwing in short story ideas I had had simmering in my brain a while, like the “search for the good” plot. Much of doing art is improvisation. The story pretty much told itself after a while.         

For a collection so full of damage, there are very often occurrences of hilarity. One of these is delivered through the talking cat Seymour. What purpose does it serve to have jokes embedded within a serious narrative?

Like so much of my life in Austin, I wanted the strip to have its heaviness and its lighter notes. Surreal and absurdist touches work very organically in a comic strip, as opposed to most other media, I’d say. I hope, too, that I captured a bit of what made Austin weird in that time period, something seen pretty clearly and endearingly in Richard Linklater’s film Slacker, which is all about “weird Austin.” As the story leaves Austin (in “Going Home” and “The Death of Chip”) things get a lot heavier, it’s true.

You make tons of music references throughout your work. What is the role of music in your creative process?

Yes, starting with the title, which I took from a song by my friend Paul English, a magnificent musician. Austin is a music town, what can I say! It always seemed like every other person you met could play the guitar and had a band. So many talented folks. So even though I had no music ability, I was always surrounded by musicians, and of course college is a time to discover many new things, including music. And it wasn’t always what you would expect, either; lots of what we listened to was older. My friend Bo Tisdale (another extraordinary musician) introduced me to Billie Holiday, just because it happened to be playing on his turntable once. I still remember listening for the first time to “The Piano Has Been Drinking” by Tom Waits at his apartment. Good times! Plus all the original songs my friends were churning out – including Paul’s The Phantom Zone.      

What is the “Phantom Zone”? The world of Chip and friends doesn’t seem to be particularly haunted by any literal phantoms; how would you define the term?

Well, it starts off early in the story as the amorphous state after the end of a relationship, when you can’t quite admit it’s over, and can’t see a way back, and don’t know what to do. Grief, depression, flailing, acting out, rage, psychotic breaks – it all falls into the category. But as the strip developed it became a grander metaphor for the time of uncertainty after college, and in general for how we make our way through life (at any age) mostly without seeing where we’re going or knowing what we’re doing. As John Lennon puts it, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” That’s the Phantom Zone. Of course, it’s also a borrowing. The Phantom Zone comes from the Superman mythos: a limbo-like purgatory where criminal Kryptonians wound up. A pop-culture version of Nepantla, the pre-Columbian Aztec state of “in-betweenness,” of not one thing or another, of liminality. That’s partly why I bring in Coatlicue at the end.   

You included a character by the name of Rug who worked as a cartoonist at the student paper. Was Rug based off a friend from your college days?

Yes and no. Like most of the characters, Rug was an amalgam of many people, experiences and memories of my Austin life. Oddly, Rug is the character who most closely resembles me – physically, I mean. I myself do not have a butterfly fetish.

Chip’s quest in the middle of The Phantom Zone can be considered as a search for a ‘good’, but it’s clear that goodness is subjective. What is your personal definition of ‘good’?

Gosh, that’s too hard. I went with this storyline partly because it allowed me to explore many different ideas about “the good,” simply by having Chip ask all his friends and acquaintances. It also helped with world-building, because Chip has to go to many different venues and settings to ask. One small anecdote. At a certain point, Chip is discussing the good with a philosophy professor, who dodges the question by saying his office hours have ended. That’s largely based on an interaction I had with a UT philosophy professor. We were debating something about God, as I recall, and at a certain point he cut off our discussion by saying, with a smirk, “This is as far as I can go in an undergraduate class.” I remember thinking, “If I ever become a college professor, I’ll never use that as an excuse when I’m losing.” I did in fact become a college professor, and have been true to my word.  

In The Texan and Chemo-Sabe, our titular sidekick says he has a problem arresting fellow Chicanos, but when they are unmasked to be Nazis in disguise, Chemo decides he’s okay with booking them. What do you have to say on the topic of morality vs. one’s culture? 

That strip has an unusual origin. An eagle-eyed reader will spot the fact that the art style subtly changes from one part to the next. That happened because originally I put together the first part of the story (the attack on the Mexican crooks, complete with Spanish misspellings) as an audition for the Texan comics page. I had no agenda or plan other than getting accepted by the Texan; I didn’t even think about continuing the story. Later, once I decided to run The Texan and Chemo-Sabe on the comics page (I’d gotten accepted, yay!), I had to come up with a resolution. Looking over the story again several months later, I rethought what I had done. Now Mexican/Mexican-American gangsters being whupped by a white guy in a cowboy hat didn’t look so appealing to me as an idea. Chemo’s comment about not wanting to arrest them spoke to my own discomfort with the image that I was perpetuating. So I found a solution: they’re not really Mexican crooks after all. A weak, silly parodic ending, I admit. But at least it pulls the rug out from under the very racialized representation I started out with.      

There is a scene later in the book that shows Chip and friends munching on some Mexican mushrooms, which make our protagonist feel like a superhero. Do you have any relationship with hallucinogenics in your personal life?

I went to college.

Chip’s decision to move away from home and do his part to end hunger in Africa becomes a double act of sacrifice when the Aztec goddess Coatlicue appears to snuff out his life. Was this an instance of metaphorical divine retribution, or a way of putting the character and his narrative behind you?

I would say Coatlicue does not snuff out his life; the Somali rebel forces, specifically the United Somali Congress (which Aminah refers to) kill him with one of their mines. I never show them, but we hear their gunfire and see the lump of earth under which the mine is buried. Coatlicue appears for reasons I don’t reveal in the story. Is she a herald of death? Is she “the ultimate mother,” as Aminah says, welcoming Chip home? Is she a hallucination prompted by the conversation with Aminah? Is she there simply because Chip is Mexican-American? ¿Quién sabe?

I can tell you about the person I dedicated the story to, Cynthia Elbaum. I met Cynthia in Moscow in the early 1990s. She was a bright, ambitious freelance photographer. She went to cover the first Chechen War, in 1994, as a photojournalist. One day, after I had left Russia and was once more living in the states, I was listening to NPR. This was in December, 1994. The announcer read out her name. She had been killed by an artillery attack in Grozny – from what I understand, an artillery attack on a civilian area. It was a profound shock. It also made me very angry that someone like Cynthia should die like that, when she was trying to show that war to the West with her pictures. It struck me as an example of the world’s injustice, how it swallows up good people, maybe the best of us, idealists like Rachel Corrie and many, many journalists all over the globe.  By then, I knew Chip was going to die (that gets foreshadowed in the original strip), I just didn’t quite know how. Cynthia’s death planted the seed for the story that eventually became “The Death of Chip.”

Planet of the Zooters is an entire comic section with nothing more than photographed folks and sheet music dividing the pages, hung up in a starry night sky. It goes without saying that words are not the only avenue of storytelling, but what would you say to the few poor souls out there with no knowledge of how to read sheet music?

Hey, I can’t read sheet music either! I did have trouble finding that piece, “Los Chucos Suaves” by the great Lalo Guerrero, in sheet music form, though. Eventually I had to pay a professional music notation service. I wanted that piece in the comic because it’s the ultimate zoot-suiter song. Planet of the Zooters brings together a lot of things: a formal experiment with music in comics; a zine aesthetic mashed up with a Mexican fotonovela; Kirby, Star Trek and Zoot Suit run through the rasquache cuisinart. But it started out as just a goof. On Halloween, 2015, my future wife Kristin and I were taking pictures in our costumes in front of the famous gum wall in Seattle, near the Pike Place Market. We also asked a stranger to shoot some of us together. We were just playing around. Later I was having a look at the pix, and a very loose plot suggested itself. So I put it together on photoshop with the help of my technical advisor Valerie Niemeyer, and there you go: zooter scifi to the beat of Guerrero.        

Emerald City is the most abstract cut of the collection and, along with being my favorite section, shared with us some of the intimate stories about your experiences in Seattle, including an incident report and a reimagining of a public shooting. What place do these have in a book about comics?

I’m glad you liked “Emerald City.” That included some of my most recent stuff, a lot of which I started at Dune, the monthly Seattle comics-making meet-up. Comics can tell any story. This part of the collection deals with incidents, experiences and objects related to my life in this city over the last five years, like bonding over Ms. Marvel with a deaf Somali girl on the light rail; having my backpack stolen and returned; joining the Seattle/King County Clinic comics journalism team; deciding to cut down on our use of plastic; and puzzling over a beautiful wooden statue of a unicorn in the neighborhood. Other pieces came from a diary I kept while taking a minicomics-making class from the great artist and teacher Eroyn Franklin. Seattle is a wonderful, wonderful comics town. The existence of this book totally owes to that fact. That’s why I wish Mark Campos, the heart and soul of our scene, were alive to see it. But he died tragically in 2018.    

Chip was happy to leave his home behind in search for something more, however, this sentiment is one you seem not to share in your personal life. How do you feel towards your hometown of old Edinburg now that it’s changed? 

Actually, I think Chip and I have more in common than you suspect. Chip does express love for his roots in “Going Home.” (By the way, his father and stepmother’s house in that story is modeled on the house I grew up in, at 821 East Kuhn in Edinburg.) I left home at 18, because I needed to escape the Rio Grande Valley. It’s true that when I left I thought I’d never go back. The world’s too big, life’s too short, etc. But then I grew up! Enough, anyway, to reassess the Valley and come to really love it as an adult, for all the things that make it unique. I love the border culture of the Valley, I love the language, the food (in moderation), the wildlife, the lifelong friends and family there. I tried to communicate that love especially in the one prose piece included in the collection, the short story “La Tempesta.”

When I visit the Valley I often have very full days, because I’m trying to see as much and as many people as possible. Since starting work on my new book of comics journalism, Fronteras de Fierro: Life on the Border in the Age of Walls, I’ve gone to many areas of the Valley I either hadn’t seen since I was a teen, like the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, or never seen before, like the lovely town of Roma. As for Edinburg, that’s always bittersweet. The older part of town, where I grew up, is still hanging in there, though every time I visit little chunks of it have been bitten off by “progress.” “Old Edinburg: Dead and Gone” is about that.

I think this massive modern courthouse they’re building in the center of town (ironically, on the bones of a previous courthouse which by the time I was born had been turned into a parking lot) is going to propel the city forward even faster. Population growth, changing demographics, the internet, the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, among other factors, will make Edinburg very different in the not-too-distant future, I suspect.

But I can’t see myself ever not loving mi gente y mi tierra.     

Treat yourself to José Alaniz’s brilliance with this fantastic collection.
Available on Amazon: http://bit.ly/phantomzone

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