profile: Jonny Negron
Jonny Negron has a reputation. He is known for drawing women with massive breasts and curvaceous thighs: the puerile dream women of comics and cartoons. But there is something different about his work—it doesn’t exist on the same fantasy plane as most male-oriented illustration. His women don’t sport hourglass figures or come-hither smiles. They are not here for your viewing pleasure.
There exists a surprising dignity in the indifferent faces of the women that parade through the panels of Negron’s comics. In the unease that they bestow, and the power with which they bestow it, his drawings rise above the swamp of sex and violence that marks the industry, even as Negron remains immersed within. But he, too, is working to move beyond the limitations of the world of comics. He’s just not quite sure how to do it.
I met Negron at his house one evening in East Austin. An old Mission Revival-style home, its inside feels like a continuation of the exterior, with skylights in the ceiling, dusty red stone tile, and stucco walls. He was helping his friend, the artist Nadia Esseghaiar, put together zines for an exhibit she was hosting at Las Cruxes, a shop a few blocks away. He would put an image on the scanner—mostly collages of a pornographic variety—and she would press the button on the computer on the other side of the room. The process went smoothly, although every once in a while there would be a hiccup, at which point the two would begin arguing over how to fix the problem.
Negron speaks with the weariness of someone who’s lived longer than his 29 years. “I’m willing to help if you’ll listen,” he says at one point, with the air of an exasperated mentor. When she continues to argue, he asks her to step out of the room, like a parent taking an unruly daughter aside so as not to scold her in front of their guest. As that guest, I can’t help but wonder whether the act is for show: the exertion of authority, as if there were more at stake than a mere display of technical proficiency.
Despite the success he has achieved in a relatively short period of time, Negron is dissatisfied. His work has appeared in VICE magazine and in The New York Times (where he provided illustration for an article appropriately titled “The Tangle of the Sexes”), he has been asked to contribute to a number of anthologies, and his work has been featured in exhibitions across the U.S. and abroad. Still, “it doesn’t feel like enough,” he says. His ambition is boundless, and it’s intricately tied up with the perception that his work is not given the respect that it deserves. The fact that most of the recognition he receives focuses almost exclusively on the buxom women that he draws—a recent Juxtapoz profile on him was titled “How Do You Spell Voluptuous Again?”—adds to his ire.
“It’s funny, because people ask me, ‘Why do you draw that?’ and it’s like I’m doing it for you, man!” he explains with uncharacteristic animation. “I don’t know why it’s not clear to people. Do you not see it everywhere you look? Sex is in so much advertising and in music, it’s like—that’s what we live for. People love fucking sex. So it’s not really my favorite thing to do, but…” He trails off.
Negron’s images of women can be considered empowering. They exist in a world where the male gaze doesn’t register; you can stare at them for eternity and they will never acknowledge it. If they are sexual, their sexuality is entirely divorced from the demands of the viewer, and so power is stripped from the viewer and aggregates within the image itself.
Negron first gained widespread recognition when his comic “Grandaddy Purple Erotic Gameshow” was published in Thickness #1, an anthology of erotic comics co-edited by Michael DeForge and Ryan Sands and published in 2011. The comic involves the murder of two characters (one of whom has a box in place of his head) by a character named Utu the Assassin, who looks like a cat burglar with a rapper’s chain around his neck. In the process of the attack, he falls through a skylight and finds himself in the middle of a game show, where an evil-looking man in dark sunglasses announces that he has been “chosen to receive an erotic prize.” He chooses the prize behind door number three, meets a woman inside, has pages and pages of gratuitous, graphic sex with her, and then she stabs him in the face with a pair of scissors. The characters, their motivations, and even their names are not obvious from the story. (During the course of our conversation, Negron repeatedly referred to characters by names that were unknowable from the comics themselves.) Negron’s obscurity as an artist at the time heightened the mystery of the work. As Nick Gazin at VICE put it, “It’s an interesting comic because it’s beautiful, but also full of spelling errors, which left me thoroughly confused as to what Jonny Negron might be like or if he could speak English.”
“Grandaddy Purple” was hailed by many in the alt-comics world as a standout of the anthology, and he made a number of favorite lists of the year, including Sean T. Collins’s at The Comics Journal. From that point on, his reputation as a “master of voluptuousness” was born.
Flash back to Austin Zine Fest, 2013. I had just finished setting up tables and chairs when he walked up, quiet and ill at ease but exuding effortless cool in a burgundy windbreaker and black boots. He was alone, and I mistook him for an early attendee, perhaps someone who’d come a great distance and didn’t know how long the trip would be.
We stepped outside for a smoke, and he told me that he was an artist, that he had just moved back to Austin after a couple years’ stint in Brooklyn. He spoke, as he usually does, in a careful, deliberate manner, choosing every word meticulously and with great effort. The conversation was hardly easygoing. I quickly finished my cigarette and went back inside.
A few hours later, I got around to checking out the different zines on display. As is typical for such an event, most of the presenters had Xeroxed booklets or other low-budget, self-made offerings, but Negron’s table bore an air of unexpected professionalism. He had copies of his eponymous Picturebox collection, anthologies he’d been featured in such as Study Group Magazine #2, and a stack of newspapers titled ADAPT. I picked up a newspaper and unfolded it. It was large—the size of a full-sized daily. On the cover was a drawing of a girl eating waffles and looking disgusted; the back featured an alternate cover of a hand holding a box of weed. Inside were various drawings and comics, all of which he had drawn himself.
I asked him why he printed on such large paper.
“So you can hang it on your wall,” he replied. Then he came over and autographed it with a gold marker.
Negron’s style is both immediately familiar and uncannily distinct. Flipping through his collection, I felt the visceral impact that so many others have described upon first viewing his work. How much of that impact stems from style and how much from subject matter is impossible to discern. So much of his fame is swept up with images of women that it’s hard to imagine how his career might have looked if “Grandaddy Purple” had not won him such acclaim.
“I was doing other things at the time,” Negron explains. “I also did a comic about a demon in this hell dimension [Demon God Goblin Heaven, with Jesse Balmer], and people didn’t like it as much as when I drew blow jobs and tits and stuff, so that’s what more people are familiar with. And I’m not saying—I like the work that I do. But really, that’s where it came from. People like this. So that’s cool.”
Negron’s work is more varied than people tend to give him credit for. Although many of his comics feature sexually provocative imagery, sexuality is rarely the focus of the story. Pieces such as “It Came in the Night,” published in VICE in 2011, include sex as an afterthought (or, rather, a forethought). The protagonist, Roy, is interrupted mid-coitus by a strange sound. He finds a drunk man outside his room, and, in a rage, he throws him down a flight of stairs. Then he goes dancing at a club and vomits on a group of strangers.
Other comics, such as “Nose Hair” and “Retarder I and II” (which also ran in VICE), don’t feature women at all. The former turns an overgrown nose hair into a cockroach, while the latter stories tell the tale of a boy being tormented by bullies. In fact, of all the comics in his Loose Joints 1collection, only one delves into sexual matters: “Fun Natural Fun” starts with a quartet of fashionable ladies before transitioning abruptly to two boys discussing cannibalism. At first, the ladies seem out of place, but their appearance proves prescient when the conversation turns to the key question: “Do you think people subconsciously want to eat butt meat?” Cue the image of a woman’s rounded bottom.
Still, it’s Negron’s renderings of women that attract the most attention, and they line the inner covers of Loose Joints as if to make up for their relative absence elsewhere. Ladies strut in streetwear and lounge about in bathing suits, looking uniformly Negronian: aloof and annoyed, full-bodied and bored.
“At the end of the day, I don’t have a fetish for any type of woman.”
People tend to equate Negron’s artistic inclinations with sexual desire. Credit the legacy of R. Crumb, who never shied away from putting his fetishes to paper. But such questions are difficult to avoid, given the history of the medium.
The world of alternative comics grew out of the underground comix scene of the ’60s and ’70s, largely to escape the sex, drug use, and violence that many of the premier publications of the day were specializing in. “The flaming promise of underground comix—Zap, Young Lust, and others—had fizzled into cold, glowing embers,” Art Spiegelman once wrote in RAW, a comics anthology he co-edited with his wife, Françoise Mouly, throughout the 1980s. As he saw it,
“Underground comics had offered something new... unselfconsciously redefining what comics could be, by smashing formal and stylistic, as well as cultural and political, taboos. Then, somehow, what had seemed like a revolution simply deflated into a lifestyle. Underground comics were stereotyped as dealing only with Sex, Dope and Cheap Thrills. They got stuffed back into the closet, along with bong pipes and love beads, as Things Started To Get Uglier.” (Read Yourself RAW, 1987)
But the distinction between the movements was never clear-cut, and many of the same artists continued working in the world of alternative comics. R. Crumb’s Weirdo, for example, offered material of the same style as underground classics like Zap and Arcade, and it existed for years as a lowbrow counterpoint to the headier, more expansive RAW. RAW’s second issue touted itself as “The Graphix Magazine for Damned Intellectuals”; it also contained the first installment of Spiegelman’s Maus, which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and remains to this day the gold standard of artistic recognition for a graphic novel.
Alternative comics have always been a medium in which free expression, intellectual engagement, and artistic achievement have met and mingled, but the measure of each fluctuates wildly from artist to artist and comic to comic. Like an unstable compound, an imbalance between the three can lead to volatile reactions, but there is no consensus on what the correct balance should be. Negron’s early work, in the tradition of underground comix, heartily embraced sex, gross-out humor, and violence, and this understandably turned some people off. Although he racked up accolades from folks like Gazin and Collins, others remained cold to his brand of hypersexualized cool.
“[Michael] Kupperman, Kaz, Negron, [Sam] Henderson… it’s a lot of goofiness, genre-pastiche, and grossness, which all seem to be too prevalent modes in comics these days,” wrote comic artist and critic Derik Badman in 2011, when Negron was first gaining popularity. Badman’s “Colletta Suite I-VI,” based on the romance comics of Vince Colletta, was included as a Notable Comic in the 2014 edition of Best American Comics. Negron’s comic “Infinite Lover,” from Study Group Magazine #2, was also included on the list.
Incidentally, it was Negron’s comic in the first volume of Study Group Magazine, with its sensual approach to the natural world, that demonstrated to many that Negron could create more subtle, contemplative pieces. Collins at The Comics Journal wrote that it felt “like something else entirely... The ruminative tone’s much more in line with traditional alternative comics.” Badman called it “the first Jonny Negron comic I’ve liked.”
Negron’s subtle side is something that casual fans are often unaware of. Take a piece like “Anael,” which first appeared in Chameleon I, an anthology that Negron put together with Jesse Balmer. The comic is so abstract that the plot is impossible to parse; I assumed it was just a series of cinematic images that Negron had strung together. I was wrong.
“With each hour of the day, there’s different intelligence,” he tells me. “There’s a different rune, planet, and for each hour of the day, there’s an angel. So that angel in the story”—Anael—“that’s the name of the angel that corresponds with that hour.”
The comic, as Negron explained to me, is based on different practices of the occult. “The story is this guy, he’s in the middle of the desert, and he’s just killed this person—we don’t know why—but he’s going to the site to perform this ritual. And the person he killed has an eye—it’s a mirror. And so, when it’s the right time, he places the mirror in this little mirror holder, and when the sun—you know, 12 o’clock, when you have the sun directly above you—he uses the mirror to reflect the sunlight, and it kind of points him to where he needs to go. And as you can see, the light’s already being reflected back by this woman. So this woman is an apparition who appeared at this time, and that’s when you see this circle appear. And that’s basically it.”
Occult philosophy plays a role in many of Negron’s pieces. Certain images—mirrors, eggs, and jewels—frequently recur. “The egg represents the universe, or knowledge,” he explains. “The Orphic egg, with the snake wrapped around it: it’s an image you see a lot in the occult. And the diamond represents the supreme intellect, or something like that.” The imagery is easy to spot, but difficult to interpret. “In some cases, there is a very specific story,” he asserts, “[but] it’s kind of fun for me to confuse people.”
The cinematic quality of Negron’s work is another aspect that is often overlooked. He uses a series of smaller panels to emphasize slow-motion close-ups of certain movements, such as when Anael drops a handkerchief over the murdered man’s face. And he uses shading to portray action in a single scene—Anael’s knife, for instance, stabbing the old woman’s forehead. Such techniques are not particularly original, but they add a nice touch.
In truth, Negron’s artistic sensibility is probably similar to Badman’s. Many of Negron’s favorite artists, including C.F. and Yuichi Yokoyama, lie firmly in the intellectual comic camp. C.F.’s “Face It,” published in February 2013 on The New York Times’ Opinionator blog, was included in the most recent edition of Best American Comics; the piece is a beautiful, abstract take on the claustrophobia of anxiety and what it feels like, in C.F.’s words, “to let go and take a look around.”
“He’s really on to something that I think is special,” Negron says of C.F., taking a book down off the shelf. “I think there’s kind of a poetry that happens. Those are the kind of comics that I want to do. Poetic comics that don’t need to rely on heavy literary explanation. Something that is a story that is still highly readable and entertaining, but is driven by visual narrative.”
He reaches for another book—Yuichi Yokoyama’s Garden. “I think [Yokoyama] has totally achieved that,” he continues. “If I look at his pages individually, there’s something that still flows, and I can appreciate it as an individual piece. Whereas comics… I try not to make comics where I can’t hang up a frame and really get much out of it. There are those that may want to get some old fucking Archie comic and put it up, but I don’t think it functions that way.”
Negron’s desire for artistic respect runs deep, and it’s clearly a reason why he is so hesitant to embrace his reputation as an erotic artist. “I guess I feel ambitious in that I want to make something that is readable, but will also work as like each page is a piece of art,” he tells me. “I don’t know if it can be achieved—I don’t even know if that’s what comics are for. Sometimes I think comics are not something that is to be over-thought. It’s like Peanuts: that’s what it should be,” he says with a hint of resignation, “and that’s what it is.”
At the age of two, Negron moved to Long Island from Puerto Rico, where he was born. His mother is from New York, and she wanted to be closer to his aunts, who were still living there. This is also the age at which he started drawing.
“I just drew things that were cool to me as a little kid,” he says. “Ninjas and spaceships and robots and stuff. Skeletons. And I haven’t really matured that much.” He takes out a book of baby drawings that he keeps stuffed in his closet, and sure enough, there they are.
“There are people who might do art school, and I think… they’re forced to kind of mature, or they’re just exposed to a more academic side of things, but for people like me who’ve always been doing it, there’s a sense of joy that comes from it, and it came before you were able to intellectualize any of it. So I feel like there’s not really a need to now. I guess I still have ideas that I had from when I was a kid that I still want to get out.”
Negron’s untextured surfaces and enthusiastic use of color present a childlike vibrancy, or one fueled by psychedelic drugs. Naturally, it pairs well with certain styles of music. Garage-psych rockers Thee Oh Sees used an image from his Heavenly Threshold Companion collection as the cover art for their album Drop, and he recently designed a poster for art-rock trio Portishead for a festival in France.
His style also brings to mind another obvious influence: anime. His pictures look like manga if it were invented in New York in the ’80s, rather than in Japan in the late 1800s. Growing up, he found a large selection of anime at his neighborhood video store, which turned him on to the Japanese style of drawing. Then, in high school, he became transfixed by the Superflat movement. Superflat, a concept created by the artist Takashi Murakami around the turn of the 21st century, aimed to highlight (and arguably exploit) the lack of distinction between high art and commercial art in Japan, while critiquing the consumerism of Japanese society and the fetish culture that exists alongside it.
“When I was introduced to that, probably when I was an older teenager, that really was an influence to me,” he explains. “To exaggerate things, taking the fetishistic aspects and making it absurd.” For his work, Negron adopted the superficial aspects of the Superflat artists and shed the ideological underpinnings, allowing a more ambiguous critique of the nature of alternative comics, the representation of women’s bodies in media, and the uneasy relationship between comics and the rest of the art world to take hold.
Comics today are more popular than they have been in a long time. Most of Hollywood’s blockbuster films are based on comic book heroes, and Diamond Comic Distributors, the largest comic distributor in North America, reported $517.66 million in sales of comic books, trade paperbacks, and magazines in 2013, up from $474.61 million in 2012 and $310.6 million ten years ago, in 2003. As comics return to the mainstream, the attention that alternative comics receive can be expected to increase as well. Certainly, the stature of comic artists continues to grow: works from artists like Ivan Brunetti regularly grace the cover of The New Yorker, and The Paris Review featured the work of Chris Ware in its fall 2014 issue. Ware, perhaps more than any other comic artist today, has transcended the comics medium, achieving simultaneous literary success with his dense yet elegant graphic novels. The New York Times named his most recent offering, Building Stories, one of the top 10 books of 2012.
But a good comic artist is still a comic artist, and it is perhaps telling that Ware is only the second artist to be featured in “The Art of Comics,” an interview series in The Paris Review, since its inauguration in 2010. Even more telling is the fact that the first artist interviewed was R. Crumb. Crumb, the pioneer of lowbrow, tawdry, envelope-pushing illustration, has come to be recognized for the major figure in the American comics landscape that he was (and is). But what does it mean to lump Crumb and Ware into the same catch-all category? What reductionist forces are at play? Negron is all too aware.
“I don’t enjoy doing comics as much [these days],” he confides. “But it’s partially because I feel like, after dealing with the comics industry and the comic community more, I feel like people generally, they don’t—I think it is separate from the rest of the art world or other art communities. It’s more of a collector culture. They’re not as receptive to art or artists who are trying to work in a more freeform or experimental way. I don’t consider myself an experimental artist, but I guess one reason I make comics is because I would like to try to do something that kind of bridges the gap between comics and more… fine art.”
His criticism reflects his circumstance. After getting fired as a gold buyer in 2011, he decided to make a living working full-time as an artist. To do this, he sometimes draws for as many as 12 hours per day, and then puts work up for sale on his website. His artwork sells fast. He often advertises pieces on his Tumblr, but when you follow the links, the works aren’t there. I asked for a high-resolution image of a piece that he’d put up two weeks ago, but he couldn’t provide one. It had already sold.
Commercial dependence feeds into Negron’s “give the people what they want” mentality, and this wears on his artistic aspirations. But as he tries to get out from under the yoke of his reputation, he risks casting aside what made his work so notable in the first place. Consider this: after the Juxtapozarticle went up, the Internet hordes gathered to decry his merit. Like a troll convention under a bridge, the Facebook masses hurled insults from the safety of their electronic haven. “Looks like what the anime kid would draw in seventh grade,” wrote one commenter. “So any creeper on DeviantART can get a magazine feature now?” wrote another. One angry individual claimed he was ripping off an artist named David Rappeneau. A few people came to his defense (it’s more Gahan Wilson “with a bit of old school Japanese paintings in the mix,” someone said—Namio Harukawa in particular comes to mind) while others gave the textual equivalent of a shrug. And one girl confessed that she didn’t like it, but “it’s nice to see slightly larger bodies being featured.”
Such is the nature of wider exposure, and Negron will surely experience more of this as he continues to gain traction outside the world of comics. Many may see him as that anime guy who draws full-figured ladies—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Unlike Crumb’s creepy and oftentimes offensive characterizations, Negron’s work seems to generate positive reactions among female fans. “I’m glad that there are women like that who like it, and I feel they get it,” he says. “I really haven’t encountered any girls who’ve come up to me and been like”—he scrunches up his nose in disapproval.
Negron’s images of women can be considered empowering. They exist in a world where the male gaze doesn’t register; you can stare at them for eternity and they will never acknowledge it. If they are sexual, their sexuality is entirely divorced from the demands of the viewer, and so power is stripped from the viewer and aggregates within the image itself. That power confers to those who identify with the image: women of all body types, ethnicities, and identities.
Although some may grimace at the content, and others question his technical ability, Negron’s distinctive brand of eroticism restores some gender parity to an otherwise male-centered art form. That he manages to do this while subverting the tropes of alternative comics cements a reputation that is worth owning up to. And while Negron cannot be faulted for looking to escape from the occasionally stifling and arbitrary confines of the world of comics, he can take solace in the fact that, in some ways, he already has.
Profile by Sean Redmond.
Photography by Ali Copeland.