UW News

July 20, 2020

‘A world of my own’: José Alaniz publishes a life of cartooning — so far — in collection ‘The Phantom Zone’

UW News

A scene from “The Phantom Zone,” a new book of comics and essays by José Alaniz, UW professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and a lifelong cartoonist.

José Alaniz says that comics — especially superhero tales — hooked him and “rewired” his brain at an early age. They also got him drawing his own comics, chronicling his life and the things he observes.

Now Alaniz, a University of Washington professor of Slavic languages and literature, and of comparative literature, has published a collection of his own drawings and essays. “The Phantom Zone,” which borrows its name from the Superman world, was published earlier this year by Amatl Comix.

credit=”Amatl ComixAmatl Comix

Alaniz grew up the son of Mexican-American farmworkers. “I got from comics something I could not obtain in any other way. Not even from television and movies,” he said. “A world of my own, private, portable, accessible and extendable with the flip of a page.”

UW Notebook, a longtime fan of cartooning, caught up with Alaniz with a few questions about his work and the new book.

You grew up loving comics. How and when did you begin cartooning? Who were your influences? 

José Alaniz: Maybe it sounds odd, but the very first comics I ever received — my mother probably got them for me at a convenience store — have had the deepest and most enduring impact on my own art style. “The Defenders #15” and “Marvel Two-In-One #5” (September, 1974) were both drawn by Sal Buscema, Marvel’s most reliable and prolific artist of that era. Some think he followed the conventions of the Marvel house style too slavishly, though the dynamism and predictability of his line served as the perfect introduction for a child into the wild and wacky imaginative world of superhero comics. (Who can say, but I don’t know that I would have responded the same way to the art of Neal Adams or Jim Steranko, two more highly-regarded artists at the time, had I encountered them first.)

Later, in 1975, Buscema took over the art on The Incredible Hulk, a character to which I have a near-life-long devotion and whose adventures I followed fanatically every month until my mid-30s. I basically formed as a person reading Hulk comics drawn by Buscema. To this day my art owes a debt to him. A later artist, John Byrne (famous especially for his work on The Uncanny X-Men in the 1980s) also played a role.

How would you briefly describe the collection, spanning your career as a cartoonist so far? Who is its audience?

José Alaniz, drawn by Askold Akishin for “My Comics Biography,” 2013

J.A.: I feel gratified that some of the early responses to the book have borne this out: The collection has a lot of range in art style and tone, from tragedy to tragicomedy to documentary to black humor. I thought it important to highlight the different approaches to comics I’ve undertaken over the years. As Cleveland comics writer Harvey Pekar once said, “You can do anything with words and pictures.”

As for audience, I hope anyone who likes comics will pick it up. 

Longtime readers can see subtle changes in a cartoonist’s work over many years — the look of Snoopy’s nose in “Peanuts,” say, or Michael Doonesbury’s hair. How has your work changed over the years in ways only you and close readers would see?

J.A.: This collection is comprised of strips I did in college all the way up to work I’ve done over the last few years, when I picked up cartooning again. That happened because of my participation in Dune, the monthly comics-making meet-up at Café Racer.

I think I’ve gotten better at using a brush, rather than just pen and ink, which I used exclusively in the early days. It did feel odd and wonderful to draw Chip, the main character of the Phantom Zone trilogy, again after about 20 years. (I started this story in the early ’90s and dropped it in the late ’90s.)

The first strip of the comic strip “The Phantom Zone” by José Alaniz. It ran in the “Daily Texan,” the school paper of the University of Texas.José Alaniz

Overall, though, I’d say I’m a stronger writer than artist. I hope so, anyway.

There is a scrapbook-like quality to some of the material. One layout, “Planet of the Zooters,” consists of photos of a costumed couple with what looks like a musical score beneath. Could you explain that a little? 

J.A.: You can do anything with words and pictures, and those words can be missing and those pictures don’t have to be drawn. Comics can tell any story and come from any source of inspiration. “Planet of the Zooters” started as a total goof. My future wife Kristin and I, back on Halloween, 2015, were taking pictures of ourselves in our costumes in front of the famous Gum Wall by Pike Place Market. We conscripted a passerby to take our photos together. (Thank you, whoever you are.) Looking at those photos later, I saw the basics of a plot about an astronaut stranded on a planet of zoot-suiters. With the critical assistance of my technical advisor Valerie Niemeyer — a much better artist than me, by the way — I put the story together in Photoshop.

I knew I wanted to go wordless, with a “musical accompaniment”: the notes to Lalo Guerrero’s 1949 song “Los Chucos Suaves,” from the height of the zooter era, so I had 30 seconds of the song professionally rendered into musical notes. For the comics’ look, I mashed together a zine aesthetic with that of a Mexican fotonovela by printing out the pictures and photocopying them over and over at high contrast, until the texture looked right. Then I added a starry background and planets because, you know: sci-fi. It’s all so insufferably conceptualist.   

There is cartooning as journalism here as well — scenes you observe in daily life or, in one case, stories of people visiting a free clinic. What are the challenges and rewards of this kind of on-the-scene work? 

J.A.: I have a lot of experience as a journalist. I think it was Truman Capote who said that a journalism career is like getting a free public education in many subjects.

I like artists like Joe Sacco and Victoria Lomasko, who practice a form of comics journalism that’s more observational and personal, right on that line where memoir meets reportage. T. Edward Bak‘s “Not a Place To Visit” is another good example, as is a new anthology I contributed to, “BorderX: A Crisis in Graphic Detail,” on the immigration issue.

I’m embracing that approach more in my current comics project, tentatively titled “Fronteras de Fierro: Life on the Border in the Age of Walls.” I’m using interviews, on-the-scene reporting and my own memories of growing up in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas to convey a sense of how the border wall has impacted the culture and environment there, especially since the 1990s.

Among other things, I narrate and illustrate the struggles of people who own land on the river, whose property is under threat of being cut off by the new wall construction; plus the history of environmentalist activism in the valley and the effect of the wall on Native American and U.S. veterans’ cemeteries.

The first in a series of cartoons about changes over the years in Edinburg, Texas, where Alaniz grew up.

Comics are a versatile medium; unlike video or photography, you can tailor the artwork so that your reader is guided to a particular point you’re trying to make; you can eliminate what’s extraneous. Of course, that puts a lot of responsibility on the artist to choose what’s important.

Cartooning is a world of diversity beyond that represented in daily newspaper comics. Who are a few cartoonists from under-represented populations whose work you particularly like? 

J.A.: You can’t really talk about US alternative comics without mentioning the Hernandez Brothers (Mario, Beto and Jaime) and their seminal ongoing series Love and Rockets.

That they’re Mexican-Americans from southern California both matters and doesn’t matter for appreciating their brilliant work. Way before “Planet of the Zooters,” they were bringing together myriad influences from Chicanx culture, sci-fi, pop, punk, Archie comics and so much more.

Others I admire include the disabled British artist Al Davison; Mexican-American pioneer comic strip artist Gus Arriola; the Mexican conceptualist artist Enrique Chagoya; Emil Ferris, author of the extraordinary graphic novel My Favorite Thing is Monsters, who has Latinx heritage; Seattle artist Myra Lara, a fellow émigré to Seattle from Texas’ Rio Grande Valley; and Seattle’s own E.T. Russian, whose work in intersectional, queer and disabled representation in comics has no serious rival.

For more information, contact Alaniz at jos23@uw.edu.