An author headshot of Coyote Shook.

Oil and Ice: An Interview with Coyote Shook

Coyote Shook is a cartoonist living in Austin, Texas. Their work has appeared in or is forthcoming in a range of American and Canadian literary journals, including The Kenyon Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Evergreen Review, SplitLip Magazine, Vox, The Puritan, Shenandoah, and The Northwest Review. They were the winner of the 2020 Jeanne Leiby Chapbook Contest with the Florida Review and have received multiple Best of the Net and Pushcart nominations. To learn more, visit their website.

We’re also very excited to share an interview that dives deeper into Coyote Shook’s art. This interview was conducted by our Art Editor, Addie Ascherl. Please note that the transcript has been edited for clarity.

Addie Ascherl: I’ll get started with the first question! On your website, the bio says that you use comics to examine intersections of critical disability studies and the environment. Can you discuss the most common ways these tend to overlap?

Coyote Shook: Yeah! Right now, I’m doing my dissertation on the history of whaling in the US, and I’m doing it as a graphic novel, but I’m looking at intersections between whaling and disability. For the first half of it, I’m looking at how these interactions with whales maim and dismember whalers and cause them to enter the status of disability.

And then the second half is really looking at where we are now with the environmental movement and also the disability liberation movement. And how both of these movements seemed to, in the 1970s, have gotten caught up in this Neo-liberal, individualistic model, where the emphasis isn’t on radical action or sweeping change. It tends to be more on an affective response to the environment being destroyed or an affective response to requests for disability justice—so where these movements kind of lost momentum in this period of time in the 1970s, where we have this potential for liberation. And then we go into the ’80s, where there’s more of a conservative backlash, and again you come out of out this system of, “You can protect the environment by watching a sad movie about whales.” There’s no real call to action attached, and just how that has become an anemic thing.

There’s other ways I think about that, too. One of my pieces I just got published was all about the archival research I was doing for a different project in Montana a few years ago—and being there during the hottest time of the year. And thinking about the impact climate change has when you’re disabled, and how climate change is disproportionately going to impact people who are disabled. So that’s a lot of where my mindset is around these two fields.

In terms of how comics fit into that—one, I think, as a disabled person, I’ve written a lot about comics as a useful research tool, to think of comics as research because it gives people the right to present things the way that they understand them or in the way they remember them and recreate their sort of reality. Or, if you want, it’s a totally plastic universe. So you can create your own image of the way that something happened or the way you remember something—or the way you might wish something had happened. I find that to be really useful and engaging.

And then, from a practical standpoint, I find that people are always more willing to read something if it’s in a graphic novel. Instead of spending four years working on a book that would sit on a shelf and that no one would read, I’m hopeful that I can turn this into something that’s useful and that people want to read and engage with. That’s a very long-winded answer for that, but yes. That’s kind of how those three fields show up in my work.

AA: Nice! That goes into my next question—which is, how do you represent these topics within your art? And you kind of talked about through the visual medium, and being able to adjust that to reflect your own experiences. But what is a piece of yours that speaks greatly about these issues that you stated?

CS: I need to think about that. I would definitely say “Bitterroot,” the piece I just had with Kenyon Review. That sticks out in my mind. “The Young Harris Psalter,” which I did with SplitLip sticks out really heavily in my mind. “Tamar Mepe,” which was with Tampa Review, another one that I really felt combined these things. There’s ways in which I might not make something overtly about the environment, but there will be something in the background that points to it. One thing I really like to do when I’m talking about climate change or talking about comics, where the background is a virulent environment, is to add things being on fire. Really thinking about water. A lot of times I really like having human bodies with animal faces—creating these hybrid bodies, in the style of Donna Haraway or something like that.

I’m also, especially when it comes to disability, very big into leaning into a plastic universe and trying to create this magical realist state of mind, where these ideas, these categories of the body, are no longer relevant or germane. And so bodies can do all sorts of things that you would not think bodies could do in a regular environment. That’s also really important to me, to emphasize the plastic nature of comics as a field, and really trying to go out of my way to not draw very many things being totally realistic. Even in my work right now, I’m doing a lot of gothic magical realism to tell the story. There’s flying whales, and there’s a story about the founding of Nantucket Island. And there’s this whaler, and he’s at sea, and he gets swallowed by a whale. And inside there’s a mermaid and the Devil playing cards for his soul. So I’m able to bring in the Devil, randomly staying in the background for some of the pictures or a mermaid peeping up through the water. Things like that are really important to me.

I’m also very much interested in the grotesque and trying to make grotesque things beautiful and beautiful things grotesque. And shifting those ideas and those categories. And I think for me, as a disabled person, those are terms that I think we sit with a lot. And, especially considering the history of categorizations of disability in the US, there’s something that I really like to screw with and see how I can challenge them in my work. And maybe not in overt ways—maybe just in minor ways, like in winks to the audience. That’s also really important to me when it comes to my creative work.

AA: Mm-hmm. That’s also—what you were stating earlier, with fire in the background and stuff—definitely relates to something I noticed within your work. A lot of the pieces are black and white or muted tones, but when you do include color, it’s often reds and oranges—that kind of color scheme. So, what draws you to this theme? Is that more the climate change impact on the environment—with the fire?

CS: Yeah, I think that’s, in my most distilled form, yes. Because this one being “Oil and Ice,” is ultimately talking about climate change. So there is these weird things—there’s a scarlet macaw in Alaska. And it’s a tropical bird; it’s not supposed to be there. I do like using those reds and oranges to allude to fire. So overall in the graphic novel, the only three colors I use are red, orange, and blue. So there’s the blue when I’m doing the oceans, but then there’s red. Red has a lot of different meanings here—like, one, blood, but also it can be used for fire. I limit myself on my color palette a little bit, more so than I normally would.

When I first started with comics, I was not using color at all. I was very much trying to model myself after Edward Gorey style—strict black and white. But then I came across some Edward Gorey’s where he had used color, and I really liked them. So I guess I became a color minimalist, where when I do have a color I’m including, I do want it to be deliberate. For this dissertation, all in all, it’s mostly black and white, but on pages where there is color, those are the ones that get used.

AA: Okay, interesting! It seems very intentional and symbolic, so it definitely comes through with your pieces. Going off of what you were saying, what are some of your inspirations for your work—what are some general inspirations? What are you generally inspired by?

CS: In terms of artistic inspirations, Edward Gorey’s a big influence. Remedios Varo’s a big influence. Leonora Carrington. Carol Walker is doing really cool stuff. Manuel Lozano, María Izquierdo. I’ve been looking at Mexican surrealists for the past few years, and trying to get into the work that they’re doing. Artistically, I’m also drawing a lot right now from French New Wave films and thinking about images that come out of French New Wave. I kind of want my comics to have a jarring effect, with abrupt stops and odd camera angles and repeat camera angles that are meant to comment something. So those are artistic inspirations.

In terms of cartoonists, very much Lynda Barry, who was my mentor at Wisconsin. I really love her methods of telling stories and drawing stories. I go back to that a lot. Emil Ferris, who wrote My Favorite Thing is Monsters, another really big inspiration. Ebony Flowers, who did Hot Comb, I think she’s doing really great stuff. Isabel Greenberg, who did Encyclopedia of Early Earth. Those are again people I’m really inspired by when it comes to comics and comic storytelling.

In terms of life, what I draw a lot of inspiration from, I really am just kind of an art history nerd. I think that’s what excites me. Every time I go to a museum, I always come out with a beehive of the different things I want to draw. I’ve just been inspired by different styles I’ve seen or different color combinations that I’ve seen.

I’m still kind of riding a high; I went to the Boston Fine Arts Museum for the first time a couple weeks ago, and it’s still really resonating with me. When I was in Wyoming, I was near Grand Teton, and sometimes I would go and sit and draw while I was there. It was more that I liked being outside and the weather was pleasant; I’m not really a big “draw things from life” kind of person. But it can be really nice to find a cool place with a nice climate to just go outside and be present in nature and draw.

AA: Yeah, cool. I definitely find that, getting inspiration from other art—and museums and stuff. So on your website, it states that you received your MA in Gender Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Could you discuss how these studies in that discipline present themselves in your work?

CS: That’s a great question! My first ever long-length graphic novel I did was actually my Master’s thesis at Madison, which was about disability and gender in the school house blizzard of 1888, which impacted these three teachers. So how categories of disability and gender were constructed in that disaster. I was able to turn that into a comic. So, again, I hold that in my core—that feminist lit comics are a feminist research method. A lot of feminist researchers bring that into the conversation—drawing an interview with somebody and showing them what they described to you. And then giving them editorial control to say, “No, it looked more like that” or “It looked more like that.” I think that’s all really important in terms of humanizing research and humanizing experiences that humans have that they’re trying to convey through research. So that’s always at the corner of my work, because that’s what I’m trying to do now, as a disabilities studies scholar, is really bring in that category of disability.

It’s also interesting because I have really had to, with this research, dig deeper into questions of masculinity and masculinity studies that I had maybe not paid as much attention to as I should have before. But that’s been really interesting. So today, for example, I was reading an article on masculinity in Jeffersonian democracy, and that’s having to show up in my work now. Because right now, when I’m talking about whale ships, there just weren’t as many women on board because typically women would have been viewed as bad luck or women wouldn’t be allowed for whatever reason. So that’s something I’m having to think about and sit with. That’s always in the background of my work.

And again, a lot of the things that I write about deal with researching feminist studies. Like the one “Bitterroot” comic that was just published is about how I was working as an education outreach coordinator for a project about Radcliffe Hall and Una Troubridge and just the frustration that came out of researching these deeply frustrating and problematic women who also were pioneers, in a way, and pioneers for queer rights in a way and having to sit with those nuances and how frustrating that can be.

I have a long-term goal—I’ve not started it yet—of doing a comic about Betty Friedan being trapped in this bardo where she has to watch early 2000’s reality TV shows that involve a man taking a wife from a pool of twelve applicants, and it all delves into nonsense and chaos. So topics like that are still really important to me and show up in my work a lot. I began a cartoonist by thinking of it as a feminist research method and a justice-based research method. It’s something that’s very important to my work and something that I still hold onto as I continue this process.

AA: That’s interesting. I’ve never really thought about it that way—the justice research methodbecause, like you said earlier, it can definitely being a representation of how somebody perceives their world. That’s a really cool way of viewing it. I have one last question. You kind of touched on this earlier, but many of your pieces have this central character that is often human-like and then has animal parts, like maybe an animal face. Could you comment on this theme and explain the intentions behind this?

CS: I don’t know—I like the magical realist element of it. I find it surreal and jarring and—I don’t want to say horror—but I’m kind of trying to lean into eco-horror a little bit. I think these unsettling images are important if you’re trying to tell a story that is deeply unsettling, but that I think a lot of people just regulate to a part of history. They think of whaling as being sad, but also what’s happening right now with climate change and the fact that we’re killing more whales than we did in the heyday of Yankee whaling, with ship collisions. People treat it with this aura of finality—that it’s not something to be distressed about.

Part of it is that I like disrupting the idea of the body being a single, static thing or trying to draw a person that looks like “an ideal person.” I do like this mix and match of human bodies and animal heads and things like that in order to—one, comment on how we think about bodies and what we think of as “correct” and “incorrect” bodies. Also, to look at these interactions between humans and animals—that we’re not always quite sure what to do with. These interactions between humans and whales were usually pretty violent, and it’s the same thing with humans and sharks. But that’s because humans are going into these animals’ habitats and trying to kill them, so of course they’re going to be violent. So if you don’t want to be crushed by a sperm whale, don’t go hunt sperm whales. If you don’t want to get bitten by a shark, don’t go into shark-infested waters to deliver a bomb, you know, like in WWII. It’s that kind of sight of these human-animal interactions that sometimes can end up being violent that I’m just really fixated on right now. I think that’s part of it.

I also like the idea of eco-horror being a genre in and of itself. These elements of horror existing visually in a place where slow violence is taking place against humans to get people thinking about that is really important to me and my work. And for a very long time, I’ve always been fascinated by the interactions between humans and animals. So I think that’s a very long-winded summary of where my mind is when I go in with this human-hybrid approach. Because I want it to be unsettling, and I want people to be disturbed by it. And I also want to include something in the background that people would find unsettling or disturbing. In one, a man’s face is a stingray, and behind him is an oil freighter. So thinking about what is really terrifying about this concept. That’s just a very long-winded overview of why I have that as a motif that occurs in a lot of my work.

AA: That just got me thinking actually about how a lot of people—or at least an issue with some people—is that humans will often have more empathy for animals that get hurt than other humans that get hurt. So that’s an interesting way of combining the two that I didn’t think of before this.

CS: I think one of the things… I’m hesitant when I talk about empathy because it’s a term I don’t know how valuable I find it is—in the sense of the idea of feeling something for someone is perceived of as being enough. But I’ve done a lot of research into why people get more sad when animals die than humans. One is that it’s got to be a weird deflection or self-delusion technique to help people emotionally distance themselves from that horror of human suffering.

And also, I think my work is drawing on the histories of colonization and that part of the animal compassion movement had its roots in colonization. Like, “We’re going to the Philippines to ban cock fighting because that’s such a horrible practice.” And these people mistreat whales, and we would never. And this whole gospel of kindness towards animals is kind of rooted in this idea of control and dominance that I find uncomfortable. And again, I’m vegetarian, and I’ve always really liked animals, and I also, until recently, hadn’t thought about the number of times I’ve heard people say that they’re always more sad in a movie when a horse dies than a human. And I’m like, “That is a very peculiar thing to say. You can be sad about both.” And there’s this personification of animals being totally innocent, and this personification of all humans as being innately evil… It’s very strange to watch War Horse, and you walk away feeling sad for the horse, you know? Like, you just watched sixteen-year-old German soldiers get shot for abandonment. It’s just a very… It’s not necessarily something I blame people for, but I do think it’s something that’s imbued in a lot of white dominant culture—that people have not fully reckoned with yet.

AA: Yeah, very true!

A cartoon by Alan Parker. A strange and colorful puppet hangs from some kind of metal stem (possibly a plant hanger). It says, "How Mark the Marionette imagines Heaven."

Ampydoo’s Art: An Interview with Alan Michael Parker

Ampydoo the cartoonist is otherwise known as Alan Michael Parker, the author of four novels, nine collections of poetry, and coeditor of five scholarly volumes. Parker’s awards include three Pushcart Prizes, two selections in Best American Poetry, the Balch Award, the Fineline Prize, the Lucille Medwick Award, the Randall Jarrell Prize (three times), and the North Carolina Book Award. In 2021, he judged the National Book Award in fiction. He holds the Houchens Chair in English at Davidson College, where he teaches courses on experimental fiction, creativity studies, and inhumanities; his cartoons appear each Friday online in Identity Theory. To view more cartoons, visit Ampydoo’s website.

We are please to present an interview with Alan Michael Parker below, conducted by Addie Ascherl—one of Superstition Review’s art editors for Issue 31. Please note that the transcript has been edited for clarity.

Addie Ascherl: Hello, my name is Addie Ascherl, and I’m Superstition Review’s Art section Editor. Today I’m interviewing Alan Michael Parker to discuss his art. He is extremely multifaceted, being a poet, novelist, professor, and cartoonist. He creates his comics under the pseudonym “ampydoo.” Am I pronouncing that right?

Alan Michael Parker: You are.

AA: His works are published weekly in the online literary magazine Identity Theory. Thank you for talking with me today and I’ll give you the chance to introduce yourself, if you’d like. 

AMP: Well, I’m still ampydoo, Alan Michael Parker, and this is Addie, with whom I’m speaking. I’m talking to you from the historical property of the Catawba Nation—a little land acknowledgment, just getting that in there. This is my studio, so I’m in my house in North Carolina—upstairs in my house. There used to be books—there still are books—but they’re kind of hidden over there, because I went and did something different during the pandemic, which is I started drawing. And now I can’t stop. That’s my intro.

AA: What about the cartoon medium speaks to you, and do you have any inspirations or similar artists that you look up to? 

AMP: Oh, wow, yeah. The inspirations and artists, it’s a really long list. And in fact, I have one of my commitments when I started doing this was to put together exactly that kind of list and to keep it current. And so I’ve got on the Ampydoo Cartoons website, I have a page called “People Are Great,” and I’ve got about 100 people that I’ve linked to their Instagram or their website or just work of theirs that I like. And I would say probably three quarters of them are doing cartooning in some way, but then there are a bunch like I haven’t gotten to. I need to update it. In fact, talking to you, I was like, “Oh, dang, I should update my ‘People Are Great’ page.” But of particular importance, I have to think about that.

So certainly some of the great, most familiar names would be Maira Kalman, Gary Larson, Bill Watterston—I mean, some of the comic artists through the years, definitely Art Spiegelman, very important people. And I’ve taught these artists often, but just hadn’t made my own work before. And then people I’ve discovered along the way would be the total weirdo who was Abner Dean; an artist on the West Coast who I admire very much named Johnny Damm, doing a lot of political work. A person I’ve come to know a little bit and really like is the co-editor of the Comics Journal named Austin English. He just sent me this zine from an artist from Julliete Collete called Blah Blah Blah… Tara Booth, Liana Finck, GB Tran—these are all living, wonderful, amazing, working artists. Kate Beaton has a new great graphic memoir about growing up in Western Canada. On the whole, I’m not choosing graphic novelists or sequential art. On the whole, the folks who are moving me most are people doing what I’m interested in, which are these single-panel cartoons that are sometimes called “gag cartoons.” That’s the genre because it has a gag punchline, but I don’t know what else to call them…

What draws me to the medium, to flip-flop my answers to your questions… I’m fascinated by the combo of image and text that have to work independently, that unto themselves are already, between a caption and an image, a kind of hybrid genre, because it’s writing and it’s art. And that fascinates me. The sense that both the image and the text have to be independent, and have to further the ambitions of the other, in these one-panel pieces, fascinates me. That really draws me to the form. 

AA: Yeah, and I feel like, the fact that it’s a single page often can be an interesting way of, not constraining you, but you almost have to think outside the box.

AMP: Yeah. Oh, no, that’s a constraint. It’s a formal constraint. It’s not so far from, in that sense, the kind of constraint you have when you have to write a sonnet, or when you say, “I’m going to do a drawing of someone’s eye, and I’m not going to let myself change.” It’s just going to be the eye and then keep going and getting granular with the detailed, microcosmic, just getting in there as much as possible. I mean, there are formal constraints. 

I have all sorts of wack theories about the way cartoons work now that I’ve started making them. One of them is that I have roughly seven seconds to get you to want to read past the joke, into something else. I have seven seconds to deliver a joke that you get, and then that has to push you further. It’s a wack theory.

AA: No, that’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but that makes sense. You have a singular focus that you want people to understand and want that to translate.

Another question that I have is… A vast majority of your comics have a humorous tone. One in particular I noticed is titled “The Mona Lisa from behind,” in which the back of a woman’s head appears to be much more simple than the complex Da Vinci painting we are all familiar with. Could you describe your process for making these comics? And coming up with such ideas? 

AMP: Sure. I can describe the process. I’m coming at this medium as someone who has a long history writing poems, as well as flash fiction. The sense of the encapsulated, narrative moment, the ability of a poem to create offstage, subtextual, and psychological meanings that are resonant beyond the denotative. They imply or intimate or make meanings off the page, in your head, that stuff really interests me. That’s very much part of my process and part of my goal.

The literal process is that I’m drawing in ways that are sometimes doodling, sometimes inspired by everything from infographics to pictures of animals to something that I saw on the web.  When I first started, I would put a piece of paper on top of you and trace your head, and then I’d have the rough outline. And now I’m learning—I’ve got like this much more skill [pinches thumb and index finger together] as someone who draws. But I’m trying to trust my freehand drawing, and then very much early on in the drawing process, I begin to work with what I think might be the narrative that’s implied or the caption I might deploy.

After the drawings are made, and they’re made in alcohol-based markers—they are my markers—as well as pencil and sometimes, as you can see from behind me, charcoal. Then, I scan them, and I have a pretty high-end, nifty scanner, and then I work in Photoshop. So what you’re seeing is digital work, and it’s meant to be digital. There are high-end print-outs, and that’s what this stuff is [points to the left]. My printer’s good, color mixing is good… And my monitor is good. I have good studio equipment, good tech. This is digital work, fundamentally digital work.

Having said that, I’m also interested in what it looks like if you put it in a book. I like the notion that the work is not as precious as poetry. I like the fact that it’s on Instagram, I like the medium being disseminated. It suits my Neo-marxist, semi-capitalist, full-disclosure, freeware aesthetics, shareware, cultural commons, kind of like, “Get the work in the hands of people who are gonna giggle.”

AA: Like fully accessible, kind of, I guess.

AMP: Mm-hmm.

AA: I thought they were completely digital. I didn’t realize that you actually physically draw on paper. I thought you used maybe a tablet—because, I don’t know… I just assumed, I guess.

AMP: I tried a tablet, and I found I didn’t have enough command. And I really like this mix of—and it sort of suits me—like, for the Mona Lisa one… This mix of the hand-drawn and then the Photoshop, the lettering being Photoshop. And I’m willing to make them, to sort of give into their DIY, self-trained art tendencies. I’m not looking to be Edward Hopper, here. I like the imprecision of the artist’s hand, the brush work being visible. I think it, to me, it’s expressive, it communicates the brain of the maker. And that, in this art form that’s relatively new to me—as someone who makes these things—I find it kind of fascinating.

But I didn’t answer your question! There was another question about sneaky, dark meanings. Was that your question?

AA: That’s my next question.

AMP: What was the question about the Mona Lisa then? Oh, about the concepts—where the concepts come from. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, drawings first. Captions second. There. I think because I’ve been a writer for a billion years—because I’m old—that the captions feel much more fungible. Like I could throw them out and try another one. I’ll write thirty captions in my head or take ten in my sketchbook, with each drawing. And I’ll run them by my partner, and she’ll say, “No, no, no, no, no.” Well, she likes saying “yes” to the captions, but they all stink so she’s right.

At some point, that helps me get there. I am interested in the least number of words. That is a goal. Sometimes that’s fifty words. Sometimes it’s four. Or two.

AA: Okay. Interesting. Yeah, going on to the next…

AMP: Sorry, I read ahead in the lecture! Sorry.

AA: No, it’s all good! A vast majority of them are humorous, with one-liners that accompany the images. But some do have a seemingly darker nature, I noticed. I couldn’t help but feel as if… The comic in particular, “How Mark the Marionette imagines Heaven”—it’s almost cynical, with the perspective, in my eyes, of the puppet being controlled. What are your intentions with these more cynical perspectives?

AMP: Well, if you let me share the screen, I’ll show Mark and talk to you about it. Can you make me co-host for a second? Know how to do that?

AA: I believe so. Did that work?

AMP: Yeah! I think that worked. Okay, so… You have Mark now?

AA: Yes.

AMP: Great! So, first of all… It’s just a really scary, shitty moment in history. And it’s pretty hard for me to simply make humorous work, despite my deep interest in comedy, and not think harder about the scariness. Not want some element of that… Or inevitably, just simply have some element of that out me. Sometimes I do think that kind of content outs the artist, rather than the artist names the content.

I had to wrestle a lot with this. It’s one of those things that, if I were 20 years old, I’d be up till four in the morning with the candle burning. And I’d be staring at it and saying, “What does this mean? How can I make jokes? People are really, really not happy. There’s a pandemic! What does this mean? What does this mean?” And one of the things I’ve come to understand is that there’s an honored tradition in literature, certainly, of the fool—as well as the court jester—and the way in which those people speak truth to sadness and truth to power. While being funny. And without full-on satirical novels—which I have written in the past—this form lets me speak truth to sadness, speak truth to power.

“Mark the Marionette…” So, he gets to hang there without any strings. That might be heavenly for a marionette; that’s possible. But also, he doesn’t get to walk around, and, in fact, being free of the strings, he still needs something to hold him up. So the ambiguity of that, which I think is in his physical gestures and also the fact that this is what he’s imagining to be Heaven… As in, he’s not imagining anything where… He can’t imagine walking around. He can imagine being without strings. So maybe it’s a failure of Mark the Marionette’s imagination. Maybe it’s a comment on that, in some ways. It’s also kind of just… creepy-sad for our Marky-Mark.

AA: Yeah, no, I like this because it’s not obvious, I guess. I really had to think about it, so… Which is interesting because it’s so—such a short line.

AMP: Yeah! It’s one sentence. It’s a very apparently simple drawing of a puppet, colors, hanging on a—I don’t know—a plant stand? I don’t even know what that is. But he’s hanging. And I’m glad that the simplicity of it is what’s drawing you in. Because that’s very much my goal.

AA: Yeah, it very much does. You think it’s supposed to be easy to come up with the idea.

AMP: I don’t really do easy. I love the notion that things look easy, and as a result you get sucked into them. And when you get into them, the ideas are hard. That tends to be my jam.

AA: It definitely reflects, so that’s good.

AMP: Good! Shall we stop sharing? We stop shared. We’re back.

AA: Oh yeah. I did have a follow-up question. So what are some broader issues that are most important to you—that you try to portray in your cartoons?

AMP: I’m very much interested in gender. I don’t handle body dysmorphia and gender, but I think a lot about gender. I’ve done some gender studies scholarship. I think a lot about misogyny and sexism. I’m playing hard with identity issues that I usually give to animals, or I give to humans looking at animals or animals looking at humans. Most of the political stuff that happens in my work happens between cross-species. Some of that has to do with my own feelings about appropriation and being a cishet white guy and not believing that I could represent experiences that are so distinct from my own that I’m bullshitting to try to make my neoliberal cause somehow.

But some of it, too, is that I just love funky animals. I’m turning funny, funky animals into… I’m not differentiating people or animals by physical signifiers. There aren’t white animals or Black animals or Latinx animals. It’s not George Orwell… But I really think that animals give me a good way into sociology and into social practice. And also into questions about how screwy people are. Which is probably my subject. I think it’s just, ultimately, just like, “People are screwy.” So my job is to show that.

AA: Yeah. Well, that kind of did go into my next question. A lot of your drawings, the subjects are often animals. There’s one I noticed, “Have we met?” It’s the name of a cartoon picturing a giraffe face-to-face with a lamppost—with similar height and stature. And then, I guess, you did go into your inspiration for this anthropomorphism idea and theme. Yeah. Is there anything more you’d like to say about the animals interacting with human-made objects?

AMP: Yeah, so… Pretty clearly the giraffe, here, is looking kind of surprised, I think. I hope. By the “cousin” that the giraffe has just met. One of my goals in this is actually make you believe that the giraffe is asking the question when it could also be the lamppost asking the question. And that’s part of the wackiness, of my humor—is that I don’t want to say. It’s not, “Have we met?” said the giraffe to the lamppost—or vice versa. And the anthropomorphism lets me do that and lets me think hard about the physical world, that very often objects in my cartoons are sentient. There’s a kind of animism to them, if you want to think about them in religious terms, which is that they have souls. They have thoughts. And again it’s an excuse for me to talk about how screwy people are.

So I think that, for example, in this the affinity between them—which is clearly physical, the color rhyme that happens, the relationship between their bodies—is all there. And then maybe you go a little further and you say, “Wait a minute, what is the giraffe doing there? Why do we have this? What is this scenario, that gets a giraffe—not in a zoo or in its natural…” You know, and there’s sort of this creeping eco-thing that might be underneath there about animals and technology. Any number of things that I’m also not going to explain. Just let ’em be screwy. I love the absurd, just deeply… My students will tell you—so much so, that I am completely irritating.

AA: It’s another example of the simplicity being… I’m not sure the word, but, you know—you think it’s simple, and then you get confused it’s not as simple as it may seem.

AMP: Yeah. And then may you have a take. So do you think the giraffe is asking it? Do you think the lamp is asking it? Which one?

AA: Right.

AMP: No, I’m really asking you.

AA: I don’t know. When I first saw it, it’s very much, with the text being in the middle, with the two on both sides… It comes across like it could be either. So I agree. But it’s confusing.

AMP: Yeah, who’s saying it? And why? It’s often very much—that’s very much a response to my cartoons. People go, “Why?”

AA: Yeah. Going into the idea—as you said—of the absurd that you like to incorporate into your work… You have a section on your website called “Weirder Earth,” and it deals with ideas like that—that throw all logic out the window, dealing with the absurd. What is your creative process for generating your work in that area? Or just your more absurd ideas?

AMP: Well, I teach a class in experimental fiction writing. And one of the first times I taught the class, I tried to come up with a motto for the class. I just taught it this last semester, but the time before, the motto for that semester was, “Throw a pineapple at it.” Wait, you don’t know what to do? Throw a pineapple at it. My ambition for the weirder-er work is an ambition that persists, and I think, in fact, is getting even more central to the cartoons that I’ve been making. Which is… Go as weird as you can, Parker. Like, what are you doing? Trust it.

And trust the fact that no one really wants my autobiography. I’ve said this before, in other contexts. I go to work; I teach my class; I go to the grocery store (I love to cook, so I’ll buy fresh stuff); I’ll cook dinner; I’ll go home; I’ll read; I’ll watch a hockey game; I do my homework. I do it again. And what I trust is my imagination as a distinctive—as one of the most distinctive qualities that I own—that I have, my characteristic. That’s my bling. And weirder-er is even more so. So I’m trying to get weirder-er. I’m not actually naming it and saying, “Okay, these are weird. I admit it.” I’m actually trying to go beyond those and just trust it. And I think that the artist’s obligation—for me—it’s the inner freak. That’s who I want to be on my cartoons. I want to share the inner freak.

AA: I think it’s very much an exercise because of… Kids are also drawing in art—creative ideas and imagination. And as you grow up, you have a disconnect with it. It’s very interesting… It’s hard, but it definitely shines through in your work.

AMP: Cool! What kind of work do you do? You’re the Art Editor for this super-duper review.

AA: I have an art minor, so I do… I’m in a figure-drawing class right now. That’s really hard.

AMP: Yeah, I’m doing that, too! I’ve never done it in my life. I’ve done it now five or six times. Once a week. It’s hard!

AA: It’s so hard. I just always strayed away from drawing entire bodies because it’s scary. Because if you’re not good at it—if you don’t have practice with it, you’re not good at it. I was just used to drawing, you know, the face. That’s the easiest. Everybody draws that first. So definitely that’s an exercise in and of itself. I need to look at a person and understand, like, how to translate that into methods where you view it.

AMP: Yeah.

AA: It feels like a mental workout. But you can definitely see the results. As I keep working on it, yeah.

AMP: As I say, I’m getting better like this [pinches thumb and index finger together]. I don’t know if you feel that way. It’s like, “Look at that little square on the leg!” That’s like, I did something! And the rest of it sucks. It’s so hard. It’s really gratifying how hard it is, I find. In a weird, kind of perverse way for me. Because… I know how to type. I teach typing. Okay, writing. But I know how to fix—like, I can fix your cover letter. I can fix a poem, within limits. I’m not promising greatness, but I can fix problems. I can’t do that in figure drawing. I can’t fix drawing! It’s remarkably frustrating. And then I’m like, “That was totally fun!” And it’s a complete fail.

AA: Yeah. You can know that something’s wrong, but it’s hard to know why. Like I’ve been struggling with the proportion of legs, but I don’t know why they’re wrong. I just know that they look wrong. Those were all the questions I had for you! Thank you so much.