Monday, February 16, 2009

The New York Life with Bob Fingerman

“As much as I love this city, I think that when you’ve grown up in a place, you’re entitled to complain about it more than other people,” Fingerman, who was born and raised in the Rego Park neighborhood of Queens, admits from the living room of his Upper West Side apartment. He’s leaning back on his living room sofa, looking comfortable in a pair of loose shorts and a light button-down short sleeve shirt.

There’s something 1940s Warner Brothers about the apartment he shares with his wife Michele, from the marble lobby to the winding staircase that entwines itself around an old elevator.

When you go through the door of Bob’s apartment, framed comic book artwork lines the hallway, ending at a right corner with a glass display case featuring various action figures. To the right of that are his bedroom, studio (lined wall-to-wall with books), and another smaller room, all bearing dark wooden doors with frosted glass panes in them, panes that Bob and his wife added to brighten the apartment up.

The living room is furnished with an entertainment center flanked with stacks of DVDs, a sofa, rug, and a table. A display case featuring everything from The Beatles to Tin Tin rests between the windows (there’s another one in the kitchen…an impressive collection of mascots and figures with heads made of fruit).

“One thing is that when you grow up in a place, you don’t come at it with the romance that people who relocate there do,” Fingerman admits. “I don’t know what the percentage would be, but certainly every year people flock to this city with dreams of their New York life. These days, it’s probably a whole generation of people because of Friends or thinking it’s like Sex and the City. I don’t think I have that kind of starry-eyed romanticism, but by the same token, I think that I do romanticize New York in my own ugly grungy way, because I do love this city. I’ve always lived here and haven’t left. It’s not like Escape from New York: it isn’t a prison.

“Whenever we leave New York to go anywhere else in America, we’re always eager to get back to New York. It isn’t to say that we don’t enjoy ourselves elsewhere, but when you leave you realize New York’s pretty great.”

Fingerman is one of the more diverse (and under-rated) cartoonists in comics today. He got his start in the ‘80s with Mad knock-off Cracked Magazine, and then went on to draw everything from porn comics (Screw) to kiddy books (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). But the real meat, where Bob Fingerman emerged as a self-deprecating, honest, and semi-autobiographical cartoonist, would be his Fantagraphics series Minimum Wage, which has since been collected and revised as the graphic novel Beg the Question.

Beg the Question follows the exploits of Bob’s thinly veiled alter ego Rob Hoffman as he struggles to make it as a cartoonist in New York. Drawing for pornographic magazine Pork (really Screw), as well as Daft Magazine (really the aforementioned Cracked), Rob also has to balance a dysfunctional and codependent relationship while tolerating life in New York, a “lousy miserable city”.
More recent is Bob’s first novel, Bottomfeeder, about New York vampire Phil Merman, who has similar views of New York when he views the skyline from a fortieth floor balcony:

I have to play tourist in my own hometown, keep reinventing how I see this burg. I’ve never seen it from this neighborhood at this altitude.
I can pretend it’s new to me.
I can allow myself to think it beautiful.

“I think my work is palpably the work of a New Yorker,” Bob reflects, unconsciously rubbing his shaved head as he leans back against the corner of the sofa. “I dream New York when I sleep, and I have a very vibrant dream life. I don’t dream of anywhere else, and I’ve been plenty of other places. Funny thing is, I lived in Brooklyn for four years, and I never dream of Brooklyn. It doesn’t even make a cameo.

“In a lot of ways, I’ve put those years behind me. It’s odd, because I haven’t lived in Queens for many years. But, because I grew up there, it’s implanted in my brain and I often dream of it. Rego Park, at least a few nights a week, will be part of my dream. Or, because you never dream an exact reality, it’s a fusion of Queens and Manhattan, but idealized. I’m always dreaming what I think the perfect New York would be.

“It basically takes all the things I like, meshes them together, and lays my current life over it. New York is so fundamentally where I’m from and who I am, that everything I do, I don’t think I can do anything particularly convincing that could take place elsewhere…I unfortunately think that everything I write is going to have to be New York, if it’s going to be credible. I’m completely mired in my environment.”

Fingerman’s art has evolved greatly since his Minimum Wage/Beg the Question days: where his style was initially black and white line work, he has reinvented his style as more painterly and more heavily exaggerated. It’s evocative of Harvey Kurtzman’s and Will Elder’s painstaking Little Annie Fanny strip of the 1960s, but more expedient and kinetic. But one thing has remained the same: like a stand-up comedian, Bob Fingerman isn’t scared to deal in stereotyped characters, and to speak what everyone else is afraid to say. Black, white, Asian, mentally retarded…no demographic or minority is given an excuse or an ounce of political correctness in Fingerman’s work (Recess Pieces, a cross between a George Romero zombie film and a Hal Roach Our Gang short, is populated by almost every stereotype imaginable). His latest project, From the Ashes, a “speculative memoir,” follows he and his wife surviving in a post-apocalyptic New York City.

“The whole thing is a satire of memoirs,” Bob admits. “The whole point of featuring my wife and I as the protagonists, was to call it a ‘speculative memoir’, which I thought was funny. But, yeah, it takes place in post-apocalyptic New York. It couldn’t be anywhere else, because it involves a new religion rising from the ashes of Fox News Headquarters. Even with the buildings in ruins, they’re still New York buildings.

“I just can’t get away from New York.”

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