gg: Right. Right. Huh. Tell me what a traffic-school comedian is.
th: Basically, they have different kinds of traffic school. [Groth laughs.] And I don’t know, when you have to go to traffic school — I don’t remember actually what the line is in that comic.
gg: The character Mascarpone says, “I’m a simple businesswoman. It just so happens I’m a traffic-school comedian.”
th: You know how like sometimes people in the mob say that they reupholster furniture and stuff? I guess that was the idea of it, that she was saying that she had a respectable job, but I wanted it to seem absurd, so I was thinking of jobs, and if you look at different traffic schools, sometimes they have a comedy traffic school that you can go to where a standup comic will do it. So that seemed like the kind of job that she would have.
gg: [Bemused laugh.] Huh. I think part of your genius lies in sort of ferreting out these…
th: I guess they seem really clear to me. [Laughs.] I don’t know. It’s really funny, because I can’t tell. From what I’ve heard, actually, a few of the people that have read the “Wally” story so far think of it as being more straightforward, almost to the point where they may be more disappointed that the language isn’t as crazy.
gg: When I referred to randomness, one of the things, I remember is your story in Dirty Stories Vol. 3, “Daikon.” [Pronounces it Day-kin].
th: [Laughs.] That’s actually [die-cone], it’s a Japanese root vegetable.
gg: I loved your term, “sandbag googleplexes.” But I don’t know how you came up with that or even what it means, exactly.
th: It seems pretty logical to me. [Laughs.] Eric Reynolds asked me to do Dirty Stories, and the first thing that came to my mind was that genre that comes and goes, where it’s like a girl wearing a leotard, who’s seductive, and she’s doing stuff. Like Barbarella, or more specifically, like, I don’t know if you know Guy Peellaert & Pierre Bartier’s The Adventures of Jodelle. I was looking at that specifically. The Adventures of Jodelle is based on a French singer, Sylvie Vartan. It was published by Grove Press in the ’60s. Or you know Phoebe Zeitgeist?
gg: Oh yeah, sure.
th: Phoebe Zeitgeist is the clunky American version of that. Guy Peellaert did two girl characters, one was Jodelle, and the other was Pravda, who was sort of based on Françoise Hardy. So I decided, OK, I’m going to do something like that. It’s like a pop art comics thing, where they have actual popular figures from the day in the comic, and it’s sort of psychedelic. But I was basing it on the New York artist Yayoi Kusama, who’s an artist who moved to New York from Japan in the ’60s and did abstract art where she made these phalluses, they were made of cloth and they were stuffed. But her work had this psychotic base to it, where she’d take a rowboat, and then cover it up with bean bags that she would obsessively sew and fill. She also did these paintings that were just dots. So I guess the idea was to do a comic story to turn her into a superheroine. So the “sandbag googleplex” is like, if you look at her art, that’s pretty much what they are, they’re infinite varieties of these little sandbags that are supposed to be like these phalluses, but she also had this thing about cutting them, cutting penises.
gg: There was a lot of penis snipping in that story.
th: Yeah. That was something else though, I thought, if I’m going to do pornography, I should do something where there’s a penis being snipped with scissors at the end of every page, because I thought that would be the opposite of what would be required somehow.
th: So I put Jimmy Carter in there, and Robin Williams, and other celebrities that I thought of. I copied the lettering from Jodelle and the general style of it.
gg: It’s great that you can make these arcane connections like this.
th: I think if people knew that, then they read the story, it would make total sense, but if they didn’t know that, maybe they would just go, “What in the world is going on?” which is also fine. If you look at the last panel too, she’s got The Monkees in her rowboat, and it’s George Washington crossing the Delaware.
gg: I often have that reaction to your work, that there’s some kind of internal logic to them, part of which is escaping me.
th: Probably me, too. [Laughter.] That’s why I do them, to examine that and try to figure out what it is.
gg: Part of that, of course, has to be subconscious. Stuff you’re not even aware of.
th: Some of it. If you do enough writing, it seems like the words come to you and, like I say, if you’re not the kind of person who’s just inspired, if the words come to you, it’s a workman thing, you just go with the law of percentages on what you get on a particular day. You know that you’ll get something, but all you basically do is move it in one direction or another, and sometimes you’re moving it, and sometimes you’re just following it, you know? At least that’s how it feels for me usually.
gg: How much of your writing is calculated to the extent that you know exactly what you’re aiming for, and how much of it just comes — ?
th: Well, it’s not like technical writing, it’s not like instructions about how to operate an F-15 or something like that.
gg: But a lot of writing is like that. [Laughs.] A lot of so-called “creative” writing.
th: None of the writing that I do, none of it’s off-the-cuff, I do tend to go over it a lot, and maybe that could be a drawback of it to a certain degree. It could have the drawback of being too clever, some of that is also a defense mechanism of having a learning disabled sister and not feeling smart. But some of it is — I don’t know how to describe it, it’s the same thing with the pictures. You just read it, and the things that are wrong just jump out at you. You just keep working on it until you figure out what seems correct.