What Makes Sammy Run?

Meet the Iraqi Angelino and observant Jew who returned to 19th-Century Ukraine by way of Australia

Sammy Harkham draws himself well, I think, watching the cartoonist light a smoke in front of the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center. Granted, he's bigger in real life then he is on the pages of his comics. Neither he nor Greg Fitz realizes that I'm watching them from inside. And why would they? What writer in his right mind would show up early for a noon interview on a very cold Sunday, especially given the interminable bus trip from downtown Minneapolis to Macalester College? Besides, they've already seen the new exhibition on the walls around me, a super-deluxe comix retrospective, "Kramers Ergot." Fitz curated the show. Harkham edits Kramers, now on its sixth issue.

Grateful to be among fellow smokers, I join them. "It's the beard," Harkham says when I mention his acuity at sketching the guy in the mirror. "And the slumped shoulders." A lifelong Angelino (almost—details to follow), he's dressed for Minnesota, his ancient black baseball cap and matching facial fur augmented by a heavy, midnight-blue nylon parka. Only the black Chuck Taylors on his feet seem out of place in the snowy landscape.

"This is our first gallery show," he says as we stroll inside. "I have to say that it's really fun to see all these originals together"—that is, the drawings that went into previous issues of Kramers—"all this work displayed in the size it was created in. At the preview party, people were actually taking the time to read stuff."

While smaller than what's on the walls, Kramers number six is a respectable 9 by 11 inches. Plus, the thing is thicker than Duluth's yellow pages. Nicer cover, too: full color on durable flexible plastic, with snow-capped mountains looming just beyond a few buildings that appear to have been designed by Piet Mondrian. Vibrant as they are, the image's reds, blues, and yellows seem sedate next to much of what's inside it.

Which is exactly the idea. Like Raw in its day, the book offers no dearth of mind-fuck moments (or star power, including the likes of Chris Ware and Gary Panter). Retina-blasting psychedelia abounds, as well as convoluted narratives embellished with tiny, tortured script. All the filigree and strobe drawing enhances the dramatic effect of the book's less-cluttered entries—Harkham's poignant "Lubavitch, Ukraine 1876," for instance. Despite the story's temporal and geographical distance, it is autobiographical—at least to the extent that the protagonist looks like its author, slumped shoulders and all.

"My dad's from Baghdad," Harkham says as we leave the Ukraine, heading deeper into the gallery. Beard or no, the cartoonist's most striking feature is his eyes: hazel, ringed by darker brown. He drops his chin a bit when talking, locks my gaze, and lets it linger after he's finished speaking. Which makes him seem pretty intense, in a good way.

"My mom's from New Zealand. They met in Australia, then moved to L.A. When I was 14, they decided to move back to Australia, just to give it a shot. I was only there for two years, but the more I think about it, the more important that time is to me. I became a cartoonist there, met my wife there. It turned out to be a pivotal time in my life. I'm only now processing that period. All my work is autobiographical; it's all real. I think that comes through to readers. I think they can sense the kind of details that could only be there if someone had lived them."

All the details in cartoonist Jerry Moriarty's adolescent reveries are lived, too, even in the panel that shows him pissing off a tree branch. Except that he's not a him.

"Jerry's a really interesting guy," Harkham explains. "He's 70 years old, teaches at the School of Visual Arts, wears zebra stripe pants, eats the same two meals all the time. He lives in a loft in Midtown Manhattan. His rent is, like, $200 a month. That's how long he's been there. He says that as you get older, your dick means less and less to you. He wanted to explore his feminine side, to relive his past with a different gender."

Last year, Harkham lured the reclusive artist to Los Angeles for a weeklong Kramers celebration at the UCLA Hammer Museum. "It was the first time he'd ever left New York state or flown in a plane," he explains, eyes twinkling. While Kramers is legendary in comics circles and a staple of mainstream year-end "best-of" lists, Harkham is still hustling fiendishly, holding down a couple of part-time jobs to supplement a cartoonist's income that isn't rising quite fast enough to support himself, his wife, and their 14-week-old son. But he thinks big.

"You've seen that Little Nemo book?" he asks, hands spreading reflexively to encompass the famous, full-page scope of Winsor McKay's early-20th-century newspaper strip. "Issue number seven is going to be like that. Big—big—16 by 21! Every artist gets three pages. That's it. But with that assignment, an artist is going to make work that wouldn't exist otherwise. I'm so excited.

"The Clowes strip in this? Mind-blowing! Mind-blowing! And it'll never be shown anywhere else. It's going to be expensive. It'll cost around $60,000 to make and sell for $80. We're going to go to Singapore and watch them print it. But if there isn't a clunker in the book, it'll be worth it. I've found that anything I find mysterious or exciting, anything really special? People always pick up on that."

 
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