Next Gridlords

John Isaacson - An Interview by Emily Nilsson

What was the first punk show you ever went to? What was the first
you immortalized in comics form?

Bad Religion at the Anaconda in Isla Vista. I was fifteen and had to
beg my parents to let me go. I think a lot of my obsession with buying
records and going to shows is rooted in some sort of parental
prohibition. Like when you tell a kid they can’t do something, they
only want to do it more. My parents confiscating my heavy metal and
punk tapes because they were “satanic” “sexual” or “inappropriate”
only made such objects and music all the more alluring. Now I’m 36 and
when I teach art at summer camp I tell kids not to sing songs about
blowing Barney’s brains out because they’re “inappropriate” and the
kids just sing them louder.

The first show I drew a comic of was The Advantage, Hella, and Octis
playing at the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco. I went with Calvin
Wong and Geoff Vasile, two awesome cartoonists. Geoff does a comic
called Trackrabbit and Calvin now works at Cartoon Network. It was a
funny show because Geoff had our tickets but didn’t show up until
after the first two bands had played. It was sold-out so Calvin and I
were stuck outside the entire time until Geoff showed up. Then as soon
as we got in, Geoff wanted to leave because he hated Hella. I love
this first show comic because it’s not about the bands or who’s on
stage at all; it’s about the random, unexpected things that happen
during the social ritual of paying to see live music.

Do you find yourself drawing in the middle of a show?

Hardly at all because it draws too much attention to myself. It’s like
using flash-photography and it takes me out of the moment by making me
too self-conscious. When I’m at a show, I want to be part of it, to
experience it in the fullest way possible and drawing forces me to
look at the paper I’m drawing on, not at the performers or audience.
During the show, I want to have my senses open and notice weird small
details. Mentally, I am trying to take visual notes about if someone
has a Gibson SG or Les Paul and if they’re right- or left-handed and
I’m also writing in my head during the show for the text of the comic.
If anything, I type notes on my phone or write on scratch paper about
what is happening at the show so I don’t forget. My memory is really
fallible and there are a handful of times band names, songs, and
members get misstated. My comics would be more accurate, and use a
greater variety of camera angles if I did draw during the shows.

I saw a comic you did about selling t-shirts you designed and
printed on Telegraph Ave in Berkeley, what was that like? Did you
make and sell comics there too?

I made the comic about selling t-shirts on Telegraph avenue after I
stopped selling t-shirts there because it would have been too weird
for the other street vendors to see themselves depicted in that comic.
There is something funny about all these old Berkeley hippies,
deadheads, and radicals being business people analyzing customers and
making a buck. I really adored them but I also didn’t want to offend
them. One of the vendors next to me would never allow people to take
his picture. I think it was because one of the campus newspapers had
lampooned him a long time ago and he never forgot it.
It was during the experience of selling t-shirts on Telegraph that I
got the idea to do the “Do-It-Yourself Silkscreeening” comics. More
people wanted to make t-shirts than buy them.
During a Christmas fair I sold comics at that street fair with Jesse
Reklaw when he was doing the Global Hobo mini-comics distro, and Daria
Tessler when she was selling t-shirts and prints. I made a lot less
money than usual because they are both so talented!

Remember when I got to be in one of the pages of Feedback? That
was rad. I just had to mention that.

That was rad. When I don’t draw the people I go to the show with, I
kind of regret it, because drawing the show winds up being how I
remember the show. When I try to think back to shows I didn’t draw,
I’m like wait, did that band really play with that band? Did that
really happen? Who was there?


How do you figure out the lyrics to what the bands are saying?
Are they accurate? I can't absorb that kind of information when I see
live bands most of the time.

If I can decipher what the hell they are saying, I put it in, but most
of the time I have no idea so I don't put in any dialogue bubble
lyrics. If I have a band's record and there is a lyric sheet, and I
have a favorite lyric, and I want the readers to see it, then
sometimes I put that in.

How did you get into teaching comics and screenprinting?

Teaching screenprinting came about through the San Francisco Zine
Fests which were really successfully run by Francois Vigneault and the
Family Style crew among other volunteers. Eventually I did one at a
Microcosm ten-year anniversary event in Portland and the Portland Zine
Symposiums. When I went on tour with Microcosm, I had to figure out
how to make the screenprinting workshop mobile and fit into two
suitcases. I taught comics in an afterschool art class where I worked
for another woman, then I took all her students when I started doing
it on my own. She was really mad about it but I was making way more
money with each parent paying me tuition. I had the same kids coming
back for years so I had to constantly go to the Berkeley public
library and look at old comics to get ideas for new lesson plans. My
mom teaches first grade and she gave me a lot of good advice on
classroom management that I used because without it, my class was
total chaos. Reading the Ten Cent Plague by David Hadju gave me a
deeper understanding of the history and cultural marginalization of
comics as an art form in the Unites States. Now that I'm teaching
comics in Portland public high schools and at the IPRC, I have a much
stronger sense of mission and purpose about teaching comics than I did
before. I don't know if I could be a "comics and screenprinting"
teacher in any city other than Portland. With letterpress and
screenprinting studios like Em Space and the IPRC, this city is unique
in the opportunities for employment.
What kinds of design projects besides comics are you going to be
doing in the near future?

I am printing shirts with old punk band logos like Econochrist,
Crimpshrine, and Born Against. I'm working on some large mixed media
paintings that use spray-paint, screenprints, and acrylic paint.
Hopefully also screenprinting posters of some old Japanese toy robots.