Harkham will appear at the Festival of Books Saturday at 2 p.m. on the panel “Drawing the Story” with Leela Corman and Derek Kirk Kim. More information: latimes.com/festivalofbooks
Sammy Harkham is like a lot of comics fans: He’s cared deeply about the genre since adolescence and feels both joy and pain as it continues to soar and occasionally stumble from the cultural backwater. He also wants it to be art, to aim high (and low) without ever losing its raw, unpredictable energy.
This was true years before he became a comics artist as well as a new kind of Los Angeles cultural force as an editor and co-founder of Cinefamily and Family bookstore. His philosophy was and is to celebrate the leading creative edge in all things. But it’s comics that have the power to hurt him the most.
“For a while I got disillusioned with comics,” says Harkham, 32, bearded and sitting over a breakfast of poached egg and veggie sausage at Canter’s Deli on Fairfax Avenue.
On the table is the newest volume of “Kramers Ergot,” the comics anthology he has edited since 2000 and has consistently pushed against the boundaries of what graphic storytelling can mean. The current issue “is sort of an angry book. I’m mad at the reader and mad at the whole medium in a way.”
Harkham last year also released “Everything Together,” a collection of stories in comics form and bits and pieces from various publications, including his own comic book, “Crickets.” The book was nominated for a Times Book Prize alongside works by Alison Bechdel and personal hero Chris Ware.
His own work is part of a tradition colliding words and pictures into a real literature of drama, humor and observation, a lineage stretching from ‘60s underground comix to groundbreaking works such as Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” and Daniel Clowes’ “Ghost World.” The artistic potential of the comics form has been proved time and again by these and many other creators. Even so, “Comics as a real art form is still looked at like an anomaly,” says Harkham, as a niche dominated by zombies and superheroes.
“Any time I try to explain to somebody what I do, it’s impossible. Ten years ago, they would ask, ‘What character do you draw?’ Now it’s more like, is it like ‘Walking Dead’? Is it like ‘Twilight’? ‘Hunger Games’? Prose fiction has gone that way too.”
With the latest issue of “Kramers,” he playfully embraces the tropes of a serious collection of literature, with an elegant cloth cover, introduction by the musician and writer Ian F. Svenonius and careful typesetting. The result is more Granta than Comics Journal, mingling the likes of alternative comics veteran Gary Panter with geometric abstractions by Robert Beatty and 40 pages of vintage “Oh, Wicked Wanda,” the sexually charged ‘70s-era comic that once appeared monthly in Penthouse magazine. He knows many comics aficionados will object, not only to “Wanda” but to material that steps far beyond the traditional form of drawings within panels.
“I never finish an issue and feel that was a good use of the last nine months. I always feel like I should have been working on my own material,” he says of editing “Kramers.” “But lately I realize it’s ... a way of presenting a certain vision of the medium. This is a vision of comics I can get behind.”
Across the street from Canter’s is another means to his larger cultural imperative: Family, the “curated” bookstore he co-owns with his wife, Tahli Harkham, and friend David Kramer. A few steps from there is the Cinefamily (in the old Silent Movie Theater), a nonprofit he co-founded with his brother in 2007 as a venue for new and classic films, esoterica and cult favorites, without segregating high art from low. Harkham is no longer the hands-on participant he once was in Cinefamily, though he remains a board member.
His main attention now is on his own work, which has earned an enthusiastic following and critical acclaim. Included in “Everything Together” is the deeply moving “Poor Sailor,” his 2003 story of a restless young man who sacrifices domestic bliss for adventure and heartbreaking losses. It has been translated into French, Italian and Korean and was included in Dave Eggers’ “Best American Nonrequired Reading” in 2004.
“I still get people writing to me about that story,” says Harkham, noting that a friend once told him it was “like a perfect pop song.”
In the new issue of “Crickets” is the first chapter of a longer work set in 1971 Hollywood, as Harkham explores his interest in exploitation cinema. He was also inspired by the home life of his parents after arriving in the city. Harkham wanted to “tell a story where Los Angeles is a character.” (Canter’s makes a cameo.)
He grew up in this neighborhood and attended a Jewish school in Pico-Robertson. Then at age 14 he moved with his mother to Australia. It was there that he discovered his love for comics.¿
“What I liked about comics as a teenager is the same thing I liked about punk rock and what I liked about gory horror movies: It just felt completely trashy and disgusting and stupid. You’d be embarrassed to read a comic on the bus — you still would. But I like that,” he says. “It’s embracing that surface quality, not trying to make your work look smart at all, and then surprising the reader that this is a little bit richer, more layered, that there’s a lot more going on.”
When his family reunited in Los Angeles a few years later, it was back to the old neighborhood. “Definitely this part of town I feel very close to and comfortable with,” he says. “I always think of Fairfax as the center of L.A.”
Through his comics work and his role in co-creating Cinefamily and Family bookstore, he’s quietly become a significant voice for Los Angeles art, music and books at ground level. The days when his town had to be defended as a creative hothouse are far in the past, he says.
“You can really let your freak flag fly in a way that is really special,” says Harkham, who still lives nearby with his wife and children. “You’ll meet so many different kinds of people who are on some really wild trip — aesthetically, fashion-wise, musically. That’s what makes L.A. amazing.”
He aims to do the same in comics, both as artist and editor.
“The kind of storytelling I’m interested in is making things really stacked and dense so that one thing is going on with dialogue, one thing’s going on visually, and one thing’s going on in the background,” he says with a smile. “Just to push the anxiety level.”