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Misery Needs Jokes: A Conversation with Jon-Michael Frank, author of How’s Everything Going? Not Good photo

The third episode of Louis C.K.’s new series, Horace and Pete, is a nearly hour-long conversation between Horace (Louis C.K.) and his ex-wife, Sarah (Laurie Metcalf). Conversation really isn’t the most appropriate term. Horace and Sarah trade confessional monologues, with some quick exchanges filling the gaps between each character’s gut-punch revelations. Sarah goes first, unspooling the tale of how she’s ended up in a secret relationship with her 84-year-old father-in-law. Horace, at Sarah’s request, volleys back with the details of repeatedly sleeping with Sarah’s younger sister during the years they were married.  The episode is a painful but riveting watch. Sarah’s description of how she seduces her father-in-law and Horace’s confession that the only details he knows of their son’s life is what he gleans from an Instagram feed hurt my chest. After Sarah abruptly leaves the bar where this conversation occurs (the eponymous Horace and Pete’s), Horace’s cantankerous Uncle Pete (Alan Alda) wanders into the frame and tells Horace, “I can’t believe you married that cunt.” It’s a moment of comic relief that feels absolutely necessary. In their recap of the episode, the A.V. Club praised the lack of judgement in the way Louis (who is hitting new highs with this series) wrote Sarah’s and Horace’s monologues, but I think that praise extends to the closing insult from Uncle Pete, too. Louis seems to be saying in Horace and Pete (and in his FX show, and in much of his standup, too) that life is funniest when it’s most bleak.

In a few weeks, I will begin teaching my yearly course for medical students on kidney physiology. One of the first lessons of the course will be body fluids. When I’m at the whiteboard drawing a picture of the human body to relay that two-thirds of our weight is water, I’ll be tempted to use this image from Jon-Michael Frank’s new book of comics, How’s Everything Going? Not Good.

I think the students would appreciate the humor. I know most doctors would. Most humans would. Misery loves company, but misery needs jokes. Frank, a poet with two prior collections who’s an editor for Birds, LLC (an independent poetry press), has created a grim but hilarious series of comics that explore the human condition across a broad spectrum, from the delights of a slice of pizza fitting perfectly into your mouth to the heartache of severing your carotid artery. Over e-mail, I asked him about his craft and his new book.


Pre-publication, you’ve described How’s Everything Going? Not Good as a “book of poetic comics.” My favorite songwriter, David Berman (from the Silver Jews), has also written poetry and a book of comics, The Portable February. His creative output was in that order - first a songwriter, then a poet, and then a comic artist - and critics often speak of his prior role in evaluating his current work (i.e. his poems are compared to song lyrics, and his comics are called allusory). Do you want readers of How’s Everything Going? Not Good to know your background, to approach this as a comic book created by a poet?

I don’t think it’s really necessary. And because of the poetry part, it’s probably better they don’t. Poetry can be a kind of hex of sorts I guess. It’s not a word people really want around tarnishing their dinner parties, and what not. And to some extent, I’m one of those people, too. I like that David Berman line, “In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection” that starts off American Water. For one, I was born in 1984 and for two, I was hospitalized in my teens for approaching what was probably more accurately described as imperfection. I met a girl named Brooke in that hospital who refused to take a pee test so she had to resort to urinating on the carpet in her room. The staff reprimanded her by keeping her relegated to her room, but one day she broke out into the common area and asked the rest of the inmates if we liked Portishead and if we would like to hear her sing a song. Brooke was very curious to me, someone I thought who possessed a lot of treasure that was capable of wholly enriching a life (basically the inverse of what is detailed and flirted with in my book) so I was eager to hear her sing a song. The staff escorted her back to her room before she could sing, but I found a lot of restoration and solace in her just wanting to sing that song. To relate that back to your question, I’m grateful I didn’t know who Portishead or Brooke was before that moment, it wouldn’t have been the same, it would have watered down the experience or put my self too much into it. Another take on the 1984 line is maybe it is referencing the womb, and that because I was approaching perfection in there—a life fulfilled without the world—I had to be taken out.


How do you envision this being read? One sitting - start to finish - as a linear piece, or should the reader have the freedom to jump around? Did you pace/organize this with the same mindset you did with your previous poetry collections?

Somewhere between brunch and eternal damnation. I mean, yes, I sort of had a narrative in mind when sequencing the pictures. Due to the nature of the work though, the book starts out in an unfavorable light, ends in an unfavorable light, and there is no abating in between. Sort of like watching an episode of Friends. I would say my ideal scenario of this book being read is instead of the H O L L Y W O O D sign it would just say H O W ’ S  E V E R Y T H I N G  G O I N G?  N O T  G O O D.


Does every panel have humor? Is that a prerequisite for you, that there must be at least one thing funny in each of these? Or is it okay to have a 100% unfunny comic?

Succinctly, no: I think life, if it’s accurate enough, will do the humor part. All you have to do is come up with the object of interest and life will do the rest. For instance, life puts a whole story in and around say, an energetic bag of glitter at a funeral. I really like humor, or content, that on the surface is not that funny, or seems very grave, but only upon further reflection or separation does it become something altogether enjoyable. It’s like looking at pictures of yourself as a teen goth crying at the mall in front of a Claire’s—how beautiful is that moment! Seriousness is boring, who wants to think about things like they have some significance that can’t be contended. I’d like to go one step further than Dylan’s “it’s easy to see without looking too far / that not much is really sacred” and say that you really don’t even have to look for it at all. I think that’s the trade-off for being able to be alive in the world. Life is too important to matter.


Some of the text in the panels read like inspirational messages, only to be undermined (or at least commented upon) by the images. Are all the words your own, or did you appropriate/re-mix some of the texts?

All my comics are Joan Osbourne quotes. Which are pretty much just lines that didn’t make the cut for a better singer-songwriter. Which is pretty much the same as the contents of a suburban teenager’s black spiral notebook whose parents are really available and supportive. Which is pretty much the same things I didn’t understand that adults said out loud who thought their feelings were crucial when I was kid. Which is pretty similar to what I write now when trying to seem important and relevant to other people. Which is pretty much the same thing as the sound a Dungeons & Dragons gaming manual makes when accidentally dropped in the toilet.


What is your process in creating these comics? Where do the ideas begin – in words or in images?

I try not to think or try too much. The nice thing about comics, different from writing, is after spending an hour or two doing them I seldom feel like a failure because I don’t have to invest all the worth of the endeavor into one lofty output. They either happen or they don’t, like anything good, there’s not really much you can do, and I think the more you know about a creative discipline, or the more you study it consciously, the more you lessen your chances in being able to do it. As for the actual process, I sit down and make about 40 or 50 comics at a time and come away with a few that don’t embarrass me too much. This is the same exercise I was taught in order to write haiku when I was a teenager. It’s good for me because I don’t trust myself or my own discretion enough to devote myself wholly to one concept or thing. I usually put on the TV to try and grab ideas I wouldn’t normally think of, or at least aberrant objects I can abuse those ideas out of. It’s great to have a bulk of something, because I hate editing and try and never do it, so rather than scaffold with a half-cracked concept, I just go onto the next one letting the real, prominent ones emerge of their own volition. You can make something out of anything, so whatever feels right—an image or a word—to let me eek out what I think about life through is fine. I look for a capacity in art that I don’t have in life. Sometimes it’s not there though, and when that happens I feel really fucked, and then it’s just fantasy to needle me through.  



Why can't I figure out "Orange"? Can you explain it to me?

Ah, no problem! Let me explain: I painted a square of blue in watercolor and then above it I wrote the word “orange.”


So it’s not about how our expectations are never met? And how that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing? And, in that sense, it’s not a response to Kanye’s new album? All of which is a convoluted way of asking: How much do you think about how these comics will be interpreted?

Not at all. I go into everything I do with the impression that nobody cares, and if I don’t put my life on the line in it, then it’s not possible for it to matter whatsoever, and even then it’s still just an aspiration. It’s hard to make your life significant—for one thing, there’s not much money in it. I think you have to approach creative work that way, if not, then what’s the point, why not go look for sales at the grocery store? But seriously, people do a lot of drastic things in life, like tell each other how they feel or light themselves on fire, and often it’s to little avail. People forget there’s no inherent value or guarantee in anything. Trying to make something redemptive or beautiful is hard. I hate to say it, but beauty is wanting, and expectation/fulfillment breeds this sort of yield of that. If you finish something and you’re not still wanting in some way, then you haven’t given enough of yourself to it—you should always be left with less.


How much knowledge of the human body do you have to create something like this?

I would say little to none. I know that (a) I have a body and that (b) it makes me feel and think things I don’t really feel or think, but I know little else. I read an anatomy book once in Texas, but I never finished it. What a stupid machine that would do all this strenuous internal work of transferring blood and regulating functions while its beneficiary sits idly on a couch watching colors move across a screen. Or maybe that’s genius, I don’t know. I do know that having a body keeps me from being what I really want to be though. Just watch a 3-legged dog walk across a room.

How am I supposed to put my hands in my pockets again after seeing the "THERE'S LONELINESS IN YOUR POCKET..." panel?

It’s necessary to do this if they are filled with rocks and you are approaching the state of being underwater.


Is there a hero (or heroes) in this book? A villain (or villains)?

I can’t answer that question without jeopardizing the utility of the Book Club Reading Guide Questions at the end of the second printing.


Is there any question you'd hoped or feared I would ask, and then I didn't?

Why do I disparage the people I love?


image: Jon-Michael Frank