You don’t have to know comics to know the work of Mark Alan Stamaty. He’s responsible for the ornately illustrated cover of the first free edition of the Village Voice back in 1996; he channeled dozens of 1970s musical icons for the cover art for Will Hermes’s Love Goes to Buildings on Fire; and, more recently, he created a mural for Sonos’s first New York City store. And that’s in addition to a long-running career in comics, including books for both adults and children, which began in the 1970s.
This year brings with it another reinforcement of Stamaty’s ties with New York City: a new edition of MacDoodle St., which collects a satirical comic which ran in the Village Voice from 1978 to 1979. What’s immediately striking about the book is its blend of feverish invention and meticulous detail. The bodies of the frustrated artists in the strip transform in surreal ways, turning the process of artistic inspiration into something that borders on psychedelic. But there’s also plenty of satire, including a group of angry Wayne Newton fans that serve as a running antagonist, and a handful of metafictional gags to boot.
In a new addendum created for this edition, Stamaty describes the process of concluding the strip and the personal and professional developments that followed. The addendum also acts as a bridge between Stamaty’s late-70s style and his current one: a subtle nod to an evolving artistic approach.
I sat down with Stamaty over coffee to talk about the new edition of the book, the changing East Village, and the evolution of satire. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
They emailed me and said that was New York Review Comics, and they were inquiring about MacDoodle St. and they also were inquiring about this other, a very experimental strip I did after MacDoodle St Anyway, then they said they wanted to do MacDoodle St. and I was delighted.
I used to say MacDoodle St. was the closest I’d ever come to what I wanted to do, which was kind of illustrated novels, graphic novels, basically for adults. I’d done children’s books, I’ve done political cartooning, and I’ve done other things – and MacDoodle St. I had done it as a weekly strip in the Voice but I was writing it as a graphic novel.
I was delighted that they wanted to [reprint it], and they’re really, really, really nice people and they’re really great to work with. And it’s ink on paper, I like that. Online has taken a lot of energy out of the paper world, but this is a place where they really have a love and care for ink on paper.
You talked about thinking of MacDoodle St. as a graphic novel, so I’m curious about how much of it you had planned out in advance. There’s an overarching plot to it, but it also feels very freeform in places, and there’ll be points where the comic strip itself will become a character in the narrative. How much of that was planned and how much of that was improvised?
When I started it, was really week to week, and I didn’t really know where it was going, and then little by little I would think ahead somewhat. When I got about halfway through, I started knowing what the ending was about. So I guess halfway through I knew exactly where I was going but I wanted it to kind of wander and just sort of see where it went.
There are individual strips where you instruct readers to kiss one of the panels, or cut out a character’s hand and shake it. Were there specific comics you were drawing on for that metafictional influence or were you drawing more from prose metafiction with that– or was that from something totally different?
My parents were both gag cartoonists, and so I grew up reading single panel gag cartoons. They had a whole bunch of collections of them and then I’d see the magazines of that day they had. So there was that and there was reading comics – Little Lulu, Dennis the Menace, whatever. And then when I was 14 the thing that really expanded my world was seeing Sick, Sick, Sick by Jules Feiffer. Which was a revelation to me, because I had, like I said, my parents did single panel gag cartoons, but that wasn’t really what I wanted to do. I realized, especially seeing Jules’s work, that I wanted to do narratives, and he really exploded the possibilities of that.
When I started doing MacDoodle St., I had been doing children’s books mostly at that point and I wanted to really play with the form as loosely as I could. I wanted to innovate, I wanted to hopefully bring something to it that I hadn’t seen, that I didn’t know. So it was really like, this is a great form, what else can it be?
It’s interesting because when I was reading the addendum – correct me if I’m wrong or if I’m being totally off base here – but it seemed like you were taking readers and taking them from the style that you used in that book to up through other stylistic things you’ve done in the years since then.
And my eyes were different then. I don’t know if you know my book, Who Needs Donuts? That was also done to size. Over time you want to grow, so yes, I did it as me, now. Me now, drawing that, and I was happy to do that. I was happy about the notion that it’s still those characters, that thing, but this is how I do it now.
There’s a scene in which a group of angry conservatives, covered in neck ties, charge into the café where a lot of the comic is set. I was reminded of something I’d read recently about how there’s now a conservative version of Yelp, where people can list restaurants where they can go while wearing their Trump hats. When you were reading it, were you finding any strange echoes of the present day that you might not have expected?
Not too long after I did that strip, I was surprised at what happened. When I started that strip, Jimmy Carter was president and I think he had a pretty high approval rating. I believe it was before the hostage situation [in Iran] and at that point, when I started it, it was before Ted Kennedy was going to challenge him or anything. The idea of Ronald Reagan succeeding him in 1980 was just unheard of.
Another thing, I had no idea that Wayne Newton would sing at the 1980 Republican Convention. I didn’t even know his politics! I had seen him as an 11 year old on Ed Sullivan, and I was not a fan.
The idea of the “Conservative Liberation Front,” I didn’t know how many people these days know what that was referring to. “PLF,” the “NLF,” I don’t know if that reference is even understood now. There is a lot of “goes around, comes around.”
Are you familiar with Washingtoon? I was invited to write about politics in 1981, when Reagan came in, by the Washington Post. Since then I’ve seen tons of “goes around, comes around.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t ask as someone who lives here now, but was also in New York then, what your take has been on the changes to the neighborhood? I saw that in the addendum, you have one block where it’s one fancy coffee shop beside the other, beside the other.
A really sad thing that’s happened is all the rents and everything, it’s insane. It’s so bizarre, my place on MacDougal Street, I was there 22 years. The rent on that place went completely through the stratosphere. As soon as I let it go, it was like eight or ten times what it had been! A lot of these finance people move into these railroad flats, and they are paying an insane fortune.
It’s tragic, because the Village was affordable apartments and the East Village was more affordable. A lot of places, just places that were great places, have just disappeared and that just keeps happening, unfortunately.
Over the weekend, I watched the show Russian Doll, which has me also thinking about that. It’s quite good, and in the background it also deals with a lot of gentrification of the Lower East Side and things like that. But it also has a very bleak, very dark sense of humor.
I believe it, it’s deserved. That thing about “things change and stay the same,” it’s true. Things changed a lot and there’s still a Village. You go to the park and the Village still feels like the Village in a lot of ways. I don’t know how that exactly happens with the rents, but there still is something where it’s a special place. Unfortunately, they’ve excessively monetized it.
It’s a great feeling to do something you love. In my earlier years, I spent a lot – a lot – a lot of time walking around the streets and taking it all in. It’s something I love, which is the chaos of the streets, the intensity of the energy, the infinite imagery. Everything going on at the same time, all the activity of it. I love absorbing it and I love reflecting it.
Yeah, I feel like you get some of that chaos in a few of the strips in the book, where you have either giant crowd scenes or brawls happening or whatever else. We generally enjoyed some of the strips being very meticulously arranged and some just being dozens of bodies in a sort of chaos, is a nice touch.
I think I’m drawn to certain kinds of complexity. I see life, always, as very complex. When I did politics, I saw that as very complex and tried to get to the complexity in it. You get to a place where it’s not just simply black and white. There’s so much nuance, so many contradictory energies that are making the thing happen.
It’s compelling and I think it’s human. If you look in a microscope, you see all these little things going all over the place. The city has a vibration, everything’s busy.
In MacDoodle St., you often bring up the question between art and commerce, with characters who are working jobs to pay their rent, but then having a more creative output that they are working on at the end of the day. How did you end up navigating a fictionalized version of that debate and taking this thing that’s a very frustrating reality for some people and then turning it into something that’s also satirical or even comic?
The thing I discovered about it is that humor has something to do with irritation. When I was between MacDoodle St. and the next strip, I was introduced to a guy from the National Lampoon that I had dinner with. We had dinner at the Lion’s Head and I asked him, “What do you think humor is?” He said –which I don’t entirely agree with – he said, “Humor is hostility.” I don’t think it’s quite that, although I see political cartooning that really thrives on anger a lot and sarcasm. For me, I think it’s about an irritation. If I do something and I put it in print and somebody says, “That’s funny” and then I say, “How the hell did I do that?”
Early on when I was in New York, somebody said, “Pigeon droppings can give you a brain disease,” so I heard that and then I was a little annoyed with pigeons. In my annoyance with pigeons, I began making these surreal pigeons, and that was from a feeling of being annoyed with pigeons. So that’s why I was doing horse-birds and all that stuff, because of that.
It was like the feeling gave me an image. It’s like “this” does “this” to me, how can I convey that feeling on the page? It’s really a lot about trusting and allowing. Feeling, trusting and allowing forth.
Yes, I can tell the exact words I said. Jules said, “These new strips you’re doing, this new work you’re doing, is very brave.” He was complimenting me on it.
And I said to him, “I feel like I’m destroying my career.” And Jules said, “That’s how you should feel every time you sit down to your drawing board.”
I understand exactly what that is. You have to take a leap in the dark. You can’t be too careful. You can feel something, try to do something straight and raw and in tune of a sense of what you want the thing to feel like. But in theory, you’re trusting something that’s never been in the world before that’s your ideal anyway. You’re going to subject it to scrutiny. You just have to be willing to do that, or you can do just very safe crap.