Recently, Salon started a new comic, Kansas O’Flaherty… Secret Agent by New Yorker illustrator Tom Bachtell and former Village Voice columnist Toni Schlesinger. Kansas, the latest in a string of Salon-commissioned cartoon serials, has the unfortunate distinction of one of the most negatively-received features in Salon‘s history — the letters section for each strip rapidly reaches multiple pages and is usually closed only a few days after the strip is published; almost all of the responses are negative, and the few that are positive are somewhat backhanded compliments of the ilk “Well, it’s improving — it’s not as terrible as last week!”
Last week, however, an anonymous reader going by the nom de plume Harold Haller put together a YouTube video remix One Night In Kansas of images from the strip with his own narrative. The video was, unlike its source material, very well-received, creating a twisty story from Bachtell’s images and Angelo Badalamenti’s piece “The Pink Room” from the Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me soundtrack. Perhaps the most interesting thing I found is that Bachtell’s images, divorced from the context of the original strip, gained new life on their own and allowed his quality draftsmanship of the individual drawings to shine through, no longer weighted down by the terrible storytelling of Schlesinger and the inability of his style to suit the comic strip format.
Long being interested in artistic appropriation to create something wholly new out of existing materials, I asked Harold Haller if he would agree to an interview.
Part the First
At this moment in time, what is your favorite song?
Harold Haller: The Smiths’ “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” is, has been and always shall be my favorite song. Every time I hear it I am sixteen again, for better or worse.
What’s your favorite band that you don’t think a lot of people would have heard of?
Harold Haller: Michael Gira, former lead singer of The Swans, did a side project called The Body Lovers that is one of the best albums I’ve ever heard. One day I will write a movie just so that I can use that music. It is not for everyone, though.
What, if anything, is on any particular wall (your choice) in your domicile?
Harold Haller: A wall of monochrome paintings that I’ve been working on for about a year, but haven’t really shown anybody yet.
What’s the strangest thing you own?
Harold Haller: A small glass ampoule filled with human teeth and sealed with golden wax. I made it as part of an art project that never really came together. It is just my wife’s wisdom teeth, but it terrifies people.
Of the things you’ve done, what’s your all-time favorite (however you want to interpret that, be it artistic works, actions, whatever)?
Harold Haller: I’d tell you, but then I’d be outing my true identity. As Harold Haller, however, the KOF Remix is the best (and only) thing I’ve ever done.
Who’s your favorite visual artist (excluding yourself)?
Harold Haller: Yves Klein.
What are the five most recent films you’ve seen?
What’re your top three movies?
Do you own any original artwork, and if so, whose?
Harold Haller: My wife is an artist, so our house is filled with my wife’s art and the art of our many artist friends—none of whom you would have heard of (yet).
What is your favorite game?
Harold Haller: Satan’s Hollow—a little remembered Galaga ripoff that ate many a childhood quarter at the local Chuck E. Cheese.
What sort of pie do you enjoy?
Harold Haller: Chocolate Peanut Butter pie is so good that it makes me angry.
If you could say one thing to David Byrne, what would it be?
Harold Haller: I don’t always like your musical and artistic output, but I RESPECT it, and that is perhaps better than liking it.
Describe some horrible/otherwise amusing local commercials.
Harold Haller: The nice thing about getting all your media from NPR, DVDs and the Internet is that I don’t see any local commercials ever.
What are your five most favorite books in the world?
Harold Haller: 1984 (Orwell), Society of the Spectacle (Guy Debord), Neither Victims Nor Executioners (Albert Camus) The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu (translated by Witter Bynner), The Flowers of Evil (Baudelaire).
What is the most boring thing you’ve ever experienced?
Harold Haller: Travel delays. I love to travel, but I hate the useless waiting that often precedes it.
If you could name a child anything in the world, what would it be?
Harold Haller: Boy or girl, their middle name would be “Maverick”, because I think that is a useful secret identity that they could carry with them into any situation and be well served by.
What would be a better weapon, a gun that fires dogs or a gun that fires cats?
Harold Haller: The cats because not only can they howl, bite and claw, but also spray.
What is your favorite meal?
Harold Haller: Pizza, cheap Chianti, good conversation.
What is reality?
Harold Haller: Intention.
Part the Second
Do you have a filmmaking/animation background?
Harold Haller: I’ve produced documentary and experimental film in the past, but this was my first pure animation project. I’m actually working on both my dissertation and finding a tenure-track teaching job at the moment, so this project was kind of a creative indulgence to take my mind off my real work.
On the comment boards for Kansas O’Flaherty, it seems that the two main camps are that the strip is merely incompetent versus that it’s an Andy Kaufman-esque put on. Do you fall into either of these camps?
Harold Haller: I would be highly surprised if the Andy Kaufman theory was true. I’m of the opinion that it is two people who haven’t worked in this medium before, learning while on the job. The radical stylistic differences between the early (especially the first) and later strips are proof of this.
Also, I’m actually one of those letter writers on the comment boards, where I post under a different name. I created the “Harold Haller” pseudonym as a way to put some distance between my critical and creative thoughts on the project. “Harry Haller” was the title character in Herman Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf. I’m not going to tell you either my real name or my Salon handle.
Have you had any exposure to other works of either Tom Bachtell or Toni Schlesinger?
Harold Haller: I’ve seen Bachtell’s work in The New Yorker, but I’ve never read Schlesinger before.
The remix video you made reminds me a lot of some of the shorts that appeared on Liquid TV — especially the pseudo-noir Dog-Boy serial by Charles Burns. What were your influences on putting this together?
Harold Haller: You are right that it was influenced by Liquid Television, but not by Dog-Boy. I always found Dog-Boy a bit heavy handed and aimless–maybe I was just too young…
Actually, season two, episode 4 had a segment where they animated a segment to the song “Earth to Doris” by Was (Not Was). The FEELING of that segment really impressed me at the time and stayed with me through the years. I think it was the strong mix of music and narrative. I didn’t want to copy it, but I wanted to create something that people would FEEL rather than think about. That is what I was envisioning when making “One Night in Kansas”.
How long did it take you to decide on “The Pink Room” for the soundtrack?
Harold Haller: All of Angelo Badalamenti’s scoring for Twin Peaks had a strong emotional dimension that I thought would aid this project. But I wanted a piece that wouldn’t have been as easily recognizable as say, “Audrey’s Theme”. Because the Fire Walk with Me soundtrack is much less well known than the TV soundtrack, I went there first. “The Pink Room” jumped out at me right away. It is dirty, sexy and a just a little bit scary. It is honky-tonk that haunts.
Have you heard anything from the strip’s creators on your video?
Harold Haller: I emailed them at Salon to tell them about it and ask them not to sue me (as though they could catch me, HA!)
Here is Tom Bachtell’s reply:
“Hi Harold —i’ve watched it several times, and think it’s pretty brilliant. I just sent Toni an e-mail about it. I’m hoping she’ll take a look at it.
Have you done voice-over work before?
Harold Haller: I have done voiceover for a series of public television segments in the city that I live. The voice that you hear is actually altered a bit. I slowed my regular voiceover down to 90% speed. This makes it deeper and dreamier—gives it a sort of underwater feel. Also, nobody likes the sound of their own voice, and you wind up listening to the audio 800 times when editing something like this, so doing it this way made it bearable.
Why do you think people are drawn to Kansas O’Flaherty, despite hating it so much?
Harold Haller: I think they are drawn to it precisely BECAUSE they hate it so much. It is the rhetorical equivalent of a public lynching, but not necessarily in a bad way, if such a thing is possible. The fact that there seems to be consensus about their disregard for the strip allows them to flame spectacularly and also to share their tastes, recommending better alternatives. It has created a strange sense of community. You see this especially in the latter threads.
Why do they hate it? There is the perception that the authors are very accomplished in their fields, but are just slumming with this project. The perception of that hubris has driven letters writers mad. Also the silence of the editors and authors on the criticism has frustrated readers and driven them to drastic measures (i.e. complaining to advertisers). So it is a perfect storm of hate around a relatively innocuous bit of media.
Do you think there’s the possibility of other fan-works attempting to make something of substance out of the KOF building blocks? Is there anything you’d in particular be interested to see?
Harold Haller: I was hoping this might get people thinking creatively about the source material. That is the essence of remix culture—taking the works of others and making separate and independent works from them. Usually people do it with work that they like, but there is no reason that one couldn’t also work with source material that they dislike. In some sense, that is more liberating and allows one to make greater divergences from the source.
Also, the thing that I think goes sort of unrecognized in the comment boards is the talent of Tom Bachtell as an artist. While he might not have an intuitive sense for comic storytelling, his talents as an illustrator are significant. There are a lot of very nice visuals in KOF—they just don’t add up to a very good comic. The high quality of his art was what inspired me to make something else out of it—to try to put it in a better context.
Have you done this sort of thing with any other works?
Harold Haller: I’ve worked and played with archival materials before, but this is my first pure animation and my first media remix. It was sort of an exercise. As an academic, I’ve theorized and lectured on this sort of thing before, but never really made one until now.
Do you have any strong feelings on copyright law and the move for a less-restrictive alternative like the Creative Commons?
Harold Haller: I consider myself part of the Free Culture movement. I’m very much into the writings of people like Lawrence Lessig, Henry Jenkins, Kembrew McLeod—people like that who take a creative rather than purely critical (i.e. Robert McChesney, Mark Crispin Miller) approach to copyright liberation.
As I said earlier, I am an academic in real life and the promotion of Free Culture, Participatory Culture, Convergence Culture, and the Creative Commons is central to my writing and teaching.
If you had the opportunity to talk to the creators of the strip, would you take it? If you would, what would you say (or, if not, why not)?
Harold Haller: I feel that by making and posting this remix that I AM talking to the creators of the strip. What am I saying to them? That there are better directions for the talents of the authors and the potential of the characters than what I am seeing.
The fact that this is a creative response also allows me to take liberties and angles that I might not take in straight conversation. You will notice that the character of Kansas in my remix is not only severely delusional, but that she is also the object of a strange and not entirely healthy physical desire. The title itself is a pun on the Paris Hilton porn video. I’m not even sure what this implies…
How long did it take you to put the remix video together?
Harold Haller: It happened fast. I went from writing the voiceover to uploading the completed animation in about twenty-four hours. All told, it was about 12 solid hours of work. It would have been quicker, but rendering these sorts of files can be slow.
Do you have any other projects you’d like to mention?
Harold Haller: If I did that then I would “out” my real identity. Harold Haller isn’t working on anything else at the moment, though.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Harold Haller: To Tom Bachtell: “If you are looking for a writer to reboot the project, here I am brother.”