Pete Toms has swiftly become one of the most interesting and remarkable comics creators operating online. His work is playful and perplexing, offering profound, hilarious commentary on internet culture and social media. After reviewing Toms’ recent masterpiece The Linguists, Nick Hanover set up an e-mail interview with Toms about his personal body horror nightmares, his coloring work and his memory of Dracula as one of the first novels composed via Tweets.
Nick Hanover for Loser City: Your new comic The Linguists is a very unique take on communication, from both a social and technological sense, but one of the best comments you make on the subject isn’t even in the comic, it’s on the Gumroad page, where you “translate” your synopsis of the work for first the mass paperback crowd and then the mass media publication crowd, lampooning comics attitudes and the mainstream’s inability to separate comics from superheroes. Was there specific coverage that inspired that?
Pete Toms: Nothing specific, no. Though it is fun to imagine that I was writing the summary for my self-published, alternative comic on Gumroad, and was like, “You know what? Fuck The New York Times. I’ll show them.”
My current go-to joke about mainstream media covering comics is that there was a listicle that was going around online a couple months ago about something like, the best comics to give to someone who has never heard of comics to prove to your mom, who is actually the person we’re talking about, that there’s more to the world of art than just Czech New Wave films, and ambient sound collage, or whatever your mom’s into. All the suggestions were like Watchmen issue 9, the last issue of Cerebus, this comic that ponders what would happen in a world where Superman grows up and he actually needs glasses. All this stuff that’s steeped within a very specific comics culture that would be pretty confusing to someone who isn’t part of it.
So that might’ve vaguely been on my mind while I was writing the synopsis. Like, you pointed out though, the translation of the synopsis from “normal” to mass market paperback, to a comics review is representative of the themes of The Linguists, and the character’s thoughts about scaling down your interior life so that you can exist in the exterior world, or different exterior worlds. And also, it’s a joke about the influence of advertising, (which is what those summaries are) in a culture that lets advertising define everything. Which is a big part of the comic, too.
LC: The “tagline” you give The Linguists is that it’s about the “strange, psychic horror of being alive,” and while reading it I noticed that it has a healthy dose of Cronenberg influence. Your other material has explored the anxiety of modern living, but The Linguists feels like your first stab at making that more explicitly horror focused. What made you decide to explore that genre? Was it difficult to make it work with your absurdism?
PT: The way I attempt to approach genre in a lot of my comics is that I try to sort of reverse it, so that the usual subtext of that genre, and what would normally be the subtext of the story becomes the text, and the constraints and plot beats are obscured or are made little more subliminal.
In On Hiatus, for example, I tried to structure it like a neo-noir. When I first started writing it, I just thought it would be funny to take the existential, 1970s detective story and make it so that it directly referenced existential philosophy. Like I specifically wanted it to be Samuel Beckett plus Night Moves. It became a slightly different thing, but most of the genre tropes and beats are in there, the main character quits his job in disgrace due to a crisis of faith, he’s an alcoholic, a woman ends up leading him into a mystery that unfolds into a broader conspiracy, he gets beat up and kidnapped. But it’s all buried underneath these conversations about Youtube and Nietzsche or whatever.
I don’t know how successful I’ve been, but my goal is that I can pull this off so that the genre beats feel like destiny, or fate, or the invisible hand pulling the characters forward through the plot of the comics.
I’d actually say that most of my stuff in the past few years have been pretty specifically in the horror genre though. Even the crime stuff I’ve been doing for Felony Comics has been closer to that than anything else. The original script for The Linguists was even closer to a traditional horror thing. It was the three main characters that work in the linguistics office relating weird, frightening things that had been happening to them recently, like they were telling ghost stories, over the course of the work day. All this stuff kind of made it into the final comic, but it was one character being haunted by her neighbor’s barking dog, one character whose husband had a ghost hunting fetish, and she started hearing actual ghosts on their audio recordings, and one character who was worried his boyfriend was psychic. Then after they went home, each of them stumbled into an EC-comics style twist ending.
I think horror is a good genre for exploring anything, because everything is pretty horrifying. And I think the most effective horror things, and even maybe the most ineffective ones, are pretty absurd, and usually pretty funny.
I don’t know if it’s because I got into him when I was really young, maybe too young, but Cronenberg is obviously a big influence on a lot of my stuff. I would’ve had a lot of trouble drawing a comic about warring psychics without referencing Scanners or The Dead Zone.
LC: The Linguists and your prior series On Hiatus both feature artists who appear to be having major mental breakdowns, partially because of social media and the internet, with YouTube even serving as a framing device in portions of The Linguists while Twitter and hashtags play major roles in the plots of both works. Do you ever worry that utilizing these services will date your work? Do you share your characters’ anxiousness over the ubiquity of these platforms in our lives?
PT: Originally I had a title in the beginning of The Linguists that said, “1981,” because I wanted it to have the vibe of something set in the early ‘80s, but I was still going to have the Internet and iPhones and stuff. I took it out because I was worried that people would be confused or think I was making some sort of statement specifically about the year 1981.
I have no problem at all dating something I’m working on in 2015 as something that was created in 2015 though. I feel like I’d prefer this to any alternative. I remember there was a couple years before mainstream writers were on social media, or at least understood how to write the Internet, and were like, “I can’t write a book about emails.” So every novel was either set in the 1970s or like set in a world without computers and phones. I feel like that stuff has probably aged much worse than something like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (which is written in all tweets as far as I remember).
Like most people, I both love and am terrified by social media. I like Twitter because my friends are there. I doubt that I’d be drawing comics, or at least no one would be reading them, if not for the web. I actually like to see what people are eating for lunch and what their dogs are up to, or what movie they’re watching. But it’s also totally horrifying that these sites have made ads and people, and life and commercials, and communities and corporations, and art and content totally indistinguishable.
LC: Continuing that genre conversation, I was really surprised and delighted by The Short Con, your Study Group collaboration with Aleks Sennwald that functioned as a kind of metaphysical kiddie noir. How did that series come about? How was it to focus on the writing and let someone which such a different artistic style from yours handle the art?
PT: Aleks and I had been talking about doing an all-ages comic together for years. We had maybe a million ideas, but the one we first settled on was about a Nancy Drew/Sherlock Holmes-ish young girl, growing up in a low income neighborhood, investigating mysteries and annoying adults. I think there might’ve also been a talking dog involved.
We knew we wanted to come up with characters that we’d be able to do more than one story about, so I worked on building, or fleshing out the kids and their world a little more than I would have if I was just doing a one shot thing.
This led to me thinking a lot about my own childhood. Which led to me laying motionless on the floor whispering the ALF theme into my carpet for days, but also made me think about what I was into back then, which was ‘80s action movies, and, like, Barney Miller. So I started writing it as more of the Lethal Weapon-style buddy comedy that it ended up as.
Aleks is my favorite artist so collaborating with her was easily the best comics-related experience I’ve had in my life. Everything she did made the script 900 times better.
It’s weird, I guess because of all that, the vague connection to my childhood, making it with Aleks, even though it’s this kids genre comic about child detectives, it feels like maybe my most personal work, or at least the comic I can kind of see myself in the most.
LC: One element of The Linguists that really surprised me was the thematic commentary on relationships, specifically the way we have a romanticized notion of someone and it frequently contradicts how our friends see that person, which you make literal through the use of a guy who mind controls partners into seeing his ideal self. The Linguists takes that concept a bit further by adding in questions of consent and awareness, so I was curious about whether you also intended this as commentary on abusive relationships, where the abusive partner often works to isolate their victim and somewhat mind control them by turning them against friends?
PT: Yeah, one of the questions that’s supposed to be driving the characters in the strip is that if nothing is objective, and everything is a construct or an illusion, how can you trust anything, or anyone, even yourself? And the way they’re all dealing with that in the beginning is by relying on what’s normally presented as an objective social structure, a job, school, your teacher, your boss, and believing their version of the world.
The one character, Nora, as soon as she graduates from college, and can’t immediately find a job, feels adrift and begins to feel like an animal, without these systems. She feels like she has no personality. Her thoughts are a dog’s thoughts.
Billy, the character in the abusive relationship you’re talking about, is dating his boss and teacher who, by presenting Billy with his version of reality, and literally forcing him to see everything the way he wants him to, has all the power. Just like these structures he represents.
I often feel like almost every interpersonal relationship, and every subculture mimics the power dynamics of the dominant culture. Whether it’s like a Marmaduke fan fiction message board, or a political protest movement, the patterns people, in the US, fall into are very set. It seems impossible to escape Consumer society. Wolf of Wall Street kind of feels like it could take place in any setting.
So when Billy flees his abuser, and school, and this big lie, and finds this seemingly, kind of utopian subculture made up of his former victims, I wanted to be like “This is obviously better,” but also suggest that it has a lot of the same problems. Even though he makes his own choice at the end of the book, just prior to that it suggests that he’s in a relationship, and having a kid with, the older guy who is sort of in charge. It’s probably a better relationship, but he’s the guy who, in that world, would be closest to a boss or a teacher. And he’s also using psychic powers.
LC: You’ve also been picking up more and more coloring work and you have a very unique, recognizable style that has made you a valuable asset on series like Pop. Has coloring others’ projects helped you better understand your own? Do you think coloring is one of the more misunderstood elements of comics? I’ve always felt that color is one of the defining traits of your solo work, since you effectively utilize colors that others might be afraid of for being too garish and you construct vivid, flat backgrounds almost purely out of color.
PT: Coloring other people’s stuff is a lot different than coloring my own. It’s challenging because you’re trying to embellish everyone else’s work, and not step on anyone’s toes, or even actively work against anyone else, while also trying to suggest themes and help control pacing and help the narrative, and make the art look as good as it can by only using color and texture.
I think maybe 1% of people outside of the comics business and 4% inside understand what a colorist does. Which is understandable because I think a lot of people are only now learning what an artist does (they draw the comics). It’s treated more like a production job than a creative job a lot of the time, which is probably why, it can feel like it’s treated like an afterthought.
That being said, that seems like it might be slowly changing mostly because I think there’s just a lot of people doing really great color work recently. Even on mainstream books, there’s been a bunch of cool shit. And those people are on Twitter. So that combination makes it slightly harder to completely ignore them.
The Linguists was the first time that instead of drawing the line art and then coloring it, I did both at the same time. I think this was partially because I was burnt out a little on coloring traditionally, but also because I wanted to bring some of the stuff I’d been trying to do in my color work for other people more to the forefront of the narrative.
LC: The other day you posted a page from something new you’re working on, and I noticed that there seems to be more depth to the coloring– the colors aren’t as stark and there is more shading. Is this a continuation of some of that coloring experimentation you’re talking about? Is there a narrative reason why this new project is more, for lack of a better phrase, “realistically” colored?
PT: It’s sort of just a continuation of the coloring I’ve been doing recently, but with more dramatic shading.
I’m always trying to find ways to make my comics seem more deadpan, or at least sell the deadpan-ness inherent in them. At first, I would just use flat colors, and very simple backgrounds, or just very simple everything, and static staging, thinking that it would keep everything at the same flat, tone level. But in retrospect, this could just come across as bad drawing (especially combined with a lot of the bad drawing that was actually going on).
In The Linguists, I tried to suggest the same thing, but instead I used repeating shot sequences in scenes. So like, when Pony is being interviewed on the podcast, it’s the same sequence of panels when he’s talking as when he’s eating his own fingers. The rhythm doesn’t change.
I’m using stuff like that and a couple of other techniques in my new comic, so that’s why I’ve sort of abandoned using flat colors on it. Also for the story to work there has to be a change in vibe from the beginning (the page I posted is page 3). I wanted it to seem slightly more lived-in, and deep, and airy to start out with, and then creepier and more unreal as it goes on, so I’m trying to light everything like that.
LC: The other thing that page made me think about was the theme of actualization through self-mutilation in your work. This page closes with three panels focusing on a character’s face as he says “hashtag full Communism” and then puts a cigarette out on his face, which visually mirrors the sequence in The Linguists where Philip Pony burns his face in the middle of a tv interview. Why are you drawn to characters mutilating their faces? Is it commentary on the instinct we sometimes have to “ruin” our social media rep in order to get a kind of freedom?
PT: With some of that stuff, I’m mostly going for like cartoon body horror comedy. I wanted Pony torturing himself through the comic to almost feel like Wile E. Coyote doing Passion of the Christ or something.
I actually have a phobia or hang-up about face injuries and mutilation. Especially self-inflicted. It totally horrifies me when I see it in movies, or life, or even hear about. I have a lot of nightmares about cutting my face, or stretching it, or turning it inside out.
For a couple months, I had this recurring dream where I would twist my face inside out, and the underside was covered in hair, and then I would clumsily shave it. It was terrifying.
So I think when I put it in my comics, it’s the character actually “defacing” themselves, but, like everything else, it’s also probably me working out something in a really positive or very negative way.
LC: Most of your work is released through digital outlets like Study Group or your own Tumblr. Do you have any interest in more traditional print publishing or are you more comfortable operating digitally? Are there any ambitious projects you’d like to do that maximize digital capabilities?
PT: I like putting my stuff online because I can just make it, upload it, people can read it if they want, and I can move on to drawing another comic. And Study Group is the best website in the world so I like being involved with it in any capacity.
I’ve also always been nervous about print publishing, because I don’t really have the interest in book-making that self-publishers (and a lot of indie cartoonists) usually have and need, or the money that they rarely have and need. I also genuinely love writing and drawing comics to the exclusion of all other things, so I worry about polluting that sole source of pure joy in my life with stuff that I might not, or definitely do not love like pitching, tracking book sales, advertising, talking to people, asking for things, leaving my apartment, having complicated human and business relationships etc.
I’m actively trying to get over that though. I’m not sure if I should talk specifically about them, but I have two print books coming out this year, and probably a couple more in 2017.
I won’t get to this for a while, but I would eventually would like to do like a typical, 4-6 panel webcomic, that updates three times a week because I think that’s the closest to doing a daily newspaper strip that I could get, and that format is really appealing and interesting to me. I don’t think the strip itself would “maximize digital capabilities,” but just googling how to build a webcomic site would maximize my personal digital capabilities.
LC: You recently criticized comics critics and publications for trumpeting 2015 in best of lists as a year that “proved that anything is possible with comics as an artform” and then showcasing the same old selections as always. Do you think that the progress talk in comics this year was louder but didn’t make any impact in terms of the actual diversity of coverage? Do you foresee that changing any time soon? What were the works you wish had gotten more attention in those kinds of round ups?
PT: I like how you’re almost making it sound like I nailed my tweets to the doors of a blogger cathedral in a call for reformation or something.
I was just trying to make a joke that if you think that Batman, or Batman’s House, or Batman Wearing a Different Shirt, or Star Wars: Logos is the best comic, that’s totally cool, but it seems weird, and maybe irresponsible to insinuate that it’s in any way experimental, or expansive to comics as an art form. Especially when, because of the internet, you have access to a lot of other types of work, and the knowledge that Batman has existed, in a very similar form, for 2,000 years.
I’m not saying that a blogger that thinks a book about hunky Chewbaccas or whatever is the best the medium has to offer should read like Lala Albert, Scott Longo, or Andy Burkholder’s stuff unless they want (you should though). I just think it would probably be better for the culture as a whole if when writers call things “experimental,” they’re talking about things that are actually experimental.
There’s probably a larger aspect to this, that I talk about a lot in my own comics and to my dog, where, mostly now through social media (though I think it’s been going on for longer than that), human beings, ads and corporations are constantly communicating, vying for attention, and speaking to a broader audience, so we’ve all basically adopted the same language. And in that language I think “experimental” just means “good.” And “comics” just means mainstream comics. And “art” is “content.”
In a culture where buying a ticket to very popular, multi-million dollar movies that are released by major media conglomerates, is considered a subversive political act, I don’t foresee that changing anytime soon.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover