Books: Tom Kaczynski on Beta Testing the Apocalypse

It’s the end of the world as we know it.

By , Columnist

The release of Tom Kaczynski’s latest book couldn’t have been better timed.

Published by Fantagraphics late last year right around the time of the highly anticipated (not to mention greatly misunderstood) Mayan “end of days,” Kaczynski’s Beta Testing the Apocalypse collected a number of previously published shorter comics, along with a brand new graphic novella. And while there really weren’t any spectacular natural disasters or planet-smashing doomsdays portrayed within its pages, every story did reflect the collection’s titular theme, if only in an oblique manner, if only on a smaller, more personal level.

Which is fitting, if you think about it. After all, every day is the end of the world for someone, somewhere on this planet.

Countless people across the globe experience their own particular apocalypse each day. Sometimes it takes on the shape of death, pestilence, starvation, conflict. But it can also assume the terminal dimensions of the end to a much-needed job, or a cataclysmic rupturing of a marriage or other important relationship.

Every day, someone, somewhere, witnesses something important in their life die. And in each moment, somebody’s world comes to an end. And yet, life goes on. So, in a very real way, all of humanity is beta testing the apocalypse, because that’s how life works.

Recently Kaczynski put aside work on his latest projects, as well as his editorial duties for the new graphic novel imprint, Uncivilized Books, to talk about what connects these stories, how they became a book, what influences shaped them, and much more.

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How would you describe Beta Testing the Apocalypse to those who haven’t yet heard about it?

Short bursts of science-fictional pulp built on uncertain architectural foundations loosely threaded with apocalyptic fever dreams into an unstable theoretical assemblage. 136 pages. Two-colors throughout. Fully indexed.

Did you intended for these tales to be part of a collection, or did it just work out that way? And, if the latter, how and when did you realize that these tales belonged together?

The first couple of stories were not intended to be part of a collection. But as I kept doing more MOME stories—the anthology where most of these pieces originally appeared—a variety of connections between the stories started to emerge. Every time I finished a story, it felt unfinished. I hadn't addressed something I wanted to address.

For example, when I finished “Million Year Boom,” I had a lot of ideas about how advanced technology and primitivism are not so far apart that didn't make it into the story. A lot of them ended up in “Music for Neanderthals.”

What was the source of your inspiration on this project, and how much did it change, if at all, from your original vision of it?

There was no “original vision.” It really started with a gimmick. Each story had a number in the title: “100,000 Miles,” “10,000 Years,” “976 sq. ft.,” “Million Year Boom.” Eventually I moved away from that gimmick, but in the newer stories I kept going back to the unfinished themes of the previous stories. That, and Eric Reynolds kept saying what a nice collection these stories would make, and at some point I just took him up on that.

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How did you create the stories themselves? Do you start by writing a full script and then draw it out according to that blueprint, or was the creative process more improvisational than that?

The process was very different for each story. “10,000 Years,” for example, was written, drawn, lettered... and then at the last minute I re-wrote and re-lettered it into a completely different story. “976 sq. ft.,” was the easiest. Maybe that’s because it was mostly based on real events. It was scripted and drawn with very little editing.

The newest story—called “The New”—was created exclusively for the collection. It went through a torturous process of thumbnails, scripts, rewrites, re-draws and cut-ups.

One of the things that struck me about Beta Testing the Apocalypse was its overall tone, which reminded me of the work of J.G. Ballard, and his ability to capture the collision of individuals with their environments and, on a larger scale, of mankind with the future we’ve created for ourselves. Which made me wonder if there are any specific authors or artists who might have influenced this particular group of stories?

You hit the nail on the head. J.G. Ballard was big influence, especially on the first four stories in the book. I was reading all of his books at the time I worked on them and his world view contaminated everything I was doing.

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How about your work in general? Who are some of the more significant influences on you, as an artist and as an individual?

Other authors that I was reading at the time were: H.P. Lovecraft, Michel Houellebecq, Bruno Schulz. An amazing short story—“The Sun Also Explodes" in Fast Forward 2—by Chris Nakashima-Brown was also very important to me. The architecture and writing of Rem Koolhas and Lebbeus Woods loomed large as well.

I find inspiration in many places. My reading and inspiration tends to be pretty eclectic: Dan Clowes, Slavoj Žižek, Witold Gombrowicz, Le Corbusier, Graham Harman, Mark Fisher (aka K-Punk), David B., Gabrielle Bell, Kafka, Thomas Mann, Chris Ware, Alan Moore, Genesis P-Orridge, Momus, Plato, Ignatious Donnelly, Boulle, Voltaire, Grant Morrison, Charles Burns, Sigmund Freud... I could go on.

Unless I’m mistaken, you originally studied to be an architect. So, what kind of impact has that training had upon your work, and your particular viewpoint?

Architecture was a pragmatic decision when I went to college. It was one of the few routes for an aspiring artist that felt more concrete—pardon the pun—than art school. I also went to art school, and my experience there was close to what Dan Clowes described in Art School Confidential. But I fell in love with architecture almost immediately.

In architecture, drawing was treated drawing with a kind of sacred reverence, and it was very demanding and forced you to learn specific techniques. Drawing was also a way of thinking; you learned to use it to solve problems, to discover ideas, to communicate something to another person.

Of course, art does a lot of that too... but in art school the idea that art is a mysterious, mystical process that cannot be taught permeated most classes. It's fun to think about art being that way, but at the end of the day you also want to learn something specific.

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What prompted your decision to become a creator of comics, a builder of stories, if you will, rather than a creator of buildings?

I think there are a lot of similarities. As I mentioned, the part of architecture that really spoke to me was “paper architecture.” People like Lebbeus Woods, Le Corbusier, and Étienne-Louis Boullée used drawings to create buildings based on specific ideas. Some are real proposals, some are real but probably unbuildable, and some are completely impossible... they all work as concrete representations of ideas about humans, the world and the cosmos.

Chris Ware, among others, has proposed that comics are a way of thinking. He is also one of the few cartoonists that has taken that idea to its limits. That is analogous to architecture, I think. I also find it interesting that Chris Ware is very interested in architecture.

What do you get from creating comics, generally, and what did you get from creating Beta Testing the Apocalypse?

This is very difficult to answer. This is my medium and much of my creative output is bound up with it. At some point in your life, you grow into the medium that works the way you think. I think comics are that for me. But it works both ways, the more comics you make the more you think in those terms...

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Right now, I'm happy I finished Beta Testing the Apocalypse. At the same time, there's trepidation, worry, and anxiety. This is my first book... I can see all the little errors and problems that got left in there. It's pretty nerve-wracking.

What do you hope your readers get from your work, in general? Is it all about pure entertainment, or might you hope that they derive a little more than simple enjoyment from your tales?

It's great if they find my work entertaining and enjoyable. But if they find it boring or unenjoyable, that's fine too. I hope it's an interesting boredom.

Here I follow Žižek in his assertion that these days we're asked to enjoy everything. The injunction to “enjoy” is pervasive. Everything has to be “fun.” Boredom and misery are undervalued. Things can be interesting and valuable even when they are boring and unenjoyable.

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How about Beta Testing the Apocalypse?

Same answer as above. I would add that my idea of “fun” is reading both dense philosophical books and breezy decompressed comic books, watching long, serious films by Godard, Fellini or Tarkovsky and blockbusters by Joss Whedon or Paul Verhoeven ... among other things.

Well, what’s coming up next for you?

The next book from me is Trans Terra which I'll be publishing under my Uncivilized Books label. That book collects the Trans- mini-comics. I'm also working on a ten-page “detective” comic for Twin Cities Noir for Akashic Books. After that, I'm not sure. There are a few projects I have planned, but I haven't quite decided which is going to be next. I'll be wearing my publisher hat a lot too!

Anything else you’d like to add before I let you go?

I hope people check out my publishing project: Uncivilized Books.

I feel lucky to be able to work with some of my favorite cartoonists, Gabrielle Bell, Jon Lewis, Zak Sally, David B., Kevin Huizenga, Dan Zettwoch and others. We have a lot of great comics on deck for 2014.

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A veteran journalist who has covered the comics medium since 1998, Bill Baker is also the author of Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee and seven previous books featuring his extended interviews with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and other notable creators. You can learn more about Bill’s work…

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