Artwork by Jon Read. Courtesy of the artist.
Houston artist Jon Read, who also performs as the crazed noise rock of The Wiggins, has crafted a magical universe of his very own. Read has created an array of work centered on vibrantly hued comic superheroes and villains in painted cutouts, boards, works on paper and prints, conceived on the perceptions of good and evil. Prior to his solo exhibition at Bill’s Junk on Friday, Read spoke to Free Press Houston about the concepts behind the show, his comic book and the characters he’s imagined.
Free Press Houston: Can you tell me about the concept behind the exhibition?
Jon Read: When I started grad school, I sort of rebooted and was doing a lot of religious-based work. I didn’t really know why at that point. When I wrote about it, what I liked about religion as an artist was that people can really get stupid with it. It’s like an accepted insanity. People can say, “I don’t want a blood transfusion because I’m a Jehovah’s Witness.” God says you can’t do that.” People can really go against logic, and we accept that as a culture. I was working a lot in a graphic novel class and was trying to make a comic. A lot of my artwork was based on dreams, so when I did a comic, I wanted to base it on this dream I had. I had this fantastic dream where I was in love with three robot girls, superheroes, I was just me, and my stepdad was the super villain, and I had a crush on the superhero. I thought it was such a cool, different take on superheroes. As I was doing it, I was thinking a lot about superheroes, 1989, when the culture wars happened, and that then was also the birth of the cinematic superhero. This was when the country started to be really divided. It was kind of the rebirth of the McCarthy era mindset. Then I was thinking about divisions and how superheroes are always divided, good and evil. It was also this talk about Batman years ago that a friend of mine said he liked Batman because he had no powers except that he was dressed up. It has a lot to do with where we draw strength from and going back to how Superman draws his power from science and how the villains draw their strength from God. I didn’t really follow suit with that at all. I was interested in the concept of where we draw our strength from in general, and also how superheroes always have an origin and a weakness, so I just created my own super-universe. I kind of played with that and made toys out of them. [laughs] I have one five-page comic that I created and the characters are back-characters, characters for me to interact with and that I really wanted to make my entire Justice League and Legion of Doom.
FPH: How did you decide to make a comic book?
Read: I guess it was just how I got into art in general. My mom is an artist and she encouraged us quite a bit to get us not to steal shit or beat each other up. [laughs] So we were always drawing and my friends got really into comics and started drawing them. Once I got to a certain age, I really got more into music, I was still making art, drawing a lot, but I never really thought about telling a story that way. I think that was a big thing, that I had never really formally approached it. I like what comics do, I like what they stood for, the allegories. One of the creators of Superman went to my high school and Superman was born in [my hometown of] Cleveland. Harvey Pekar of American Splendor also went to my high school. I grew up when he was around, just this weird guy. He’d have comic book shows and he always looked pissed off. I wouldn’t talk to him. I tried doing cartoons with the How I Met Your Mother team. They wanted to do a cartoon within the show so I started doing concept art for that. I really like creating characters. With the How I Met Your Mother stuff, it was more personal since I was the basis for one of the characters and friends of mine are back characters. But the cartoon never went anywhere, and it probably shouldn’t have. We had fun working on it, but I don’t know how the world would have reacted to my life intersecting with beloved sitcoms. [laughs] As a pop artist, it was really cool to be able to work on the tackiest, gaudiest sitcom of the modern world. I like developing the characters and expressions, almost like screen tests, but it was never a complete product. I had made a book before, like a children’s book for adults, nothing sexual, but mature themes in a children’s book style, and I was having a lot of difficulty getting that published. I wanted to make something really linear and readable and when you look at it you know it’s a comic book.
FPH: So how do you come up with the ideas for each character?
Read: I don’t know. One is just a giant baby. Really strong and invincible, but mentally not quite there. That more comes from our president, I guess. These are the main characters of my comic, these three girls. I didn’t really think about it, but I had this dream about them and it’s like this vision of them as if in a movie theatre, hovering over it. It was beautiful. As I was working on it, thinking about 1989, they really are Heathers. They really are. They’re just Heathers.
I thought a lot about what a super villain would be like and how they actually have their own Legion of Doom kind of compound. They’re super, they can do whatever they want. They don’t just walk around. It seems like that’s what they do in our world. They don’t hide at all. They don’t need to since there’s lawyers and laws to protect them. I think the political climate had a lot to do with it.
I was talking to one of the kids in my comic book class and he said I was doing it all wrong and that superheroes have to be in all primary colors and the villains are in secondary colors. I said, “I’m really glad you told me that, but now that I know that, I don’t know if I really care, and I don’t know if these are really the ‘good guys’ or just perceived as them.” It’s like politics where Hilary Clinton couldn’t present herself as a good guy for whatever reason. She tried and tried and she’s up against a really terrible guy who’s open about it and it just didn’t work. She was framed as a villain and she couldn’t switch. It was an interesting dynamic and very much a comic book story playing out in front of our eyes. I really do view the Democrats as the good guys, but I also hear people say that they’re “the lesser of two evils.” I mean, they probably think they’re good at times. I’m sure Trump thinks he’s a good guy. [laughs] So that’s interesting to me as well, our perceived image and our actual image and how much that plays with superheroes. Batman has bad PR, Spiderman had bad PR. They perceive themselves as heroes, but the media didn’t. So this is the whole relationship with people who are elevated above the masses and the masses themselves, that’s really interesting to me.
As an artist, you have to promote yourself and show why you stand out among other artists. I have to be this other identity in some ways in any kind of creative avenue. With music that comes up quite a bit. People have told me they think I’m one way from my music and say, “When you get up on stage, you just switch.” I say, “No, I’m singing a song.” If we were having a conversation, you wouldn’t like it if I started dancing and screaming. [laughs] It wouldn’t make sense. It’s still me. It’s strange when people know me in one way and come to my shows and it just becomes this weird Hulk transformation that’s perceived. It’s just the song.
Jon Read’s exhibition “What Are Your Super Powers And How Did You Get Them?” opens at Bill’s Junk (1125 E. 11th) from 6 to 9 pm on Friday, April 21. The exhibition will be on view Saturday from 12 to 5 pm and by appointment through April 28.