The book cover Minneapolis cartoonist Tom Kaczynski drew for his new short-story collection, “Beta Testing the Apocalypse,” depicts men in white lab coats treading Godzilla-like through a futuristic mini-metropolis.
The skyline is an amalgam of real and imagined landmarks: the Rem Koolhaas-designed CCTV headquarters in Beijing, Egyptian and Mayan pyramids, post-modern skyscrapers and futuristic office buildings. The city is crumbling at the edges, as if some slow moving disaster had not quite succeeded in wiping it off the map.
Kaczynski celebrates the release of the “Beta Testing the Apocalypse” tonight with a 5 p.m.–7 p.m. signing at Big Brain Comics, 1027 Washington Ave. S. The book collects one-page strips and short stories that originally appeared in MOME, an aughts-era comics anthology from the Seattle comics publisher Fantagraphics, plus one new story Kaczynski wrote for the collected edition.
Most of the short stories are set in a vague near future, a step or two ahead of the present. One thing or another — global climate change, rampant consumerism, cultural decline — is pushing us toward the brink.
Kaczynski uses science fiction as a microscope, poking at contemporary anxieties like blooming bacteria in a Petri dish. The genre provides the room he needs to examine the systems that shape our lives, whether they be architecture, urban design or capitalism.
"(With science fictions) you're allowed to say things that may or may not be true, or theorize about what the world is like without worrying whether it's right," he said.
But don't misunderstand the title. Apocalypse, in this case, means dramatic and permanent change, a shift into a new reality, but not necessarily oblivion.
Kaczynski isn't out to write yet another genre riff on a hardy band of survivors slashing their way through hordes of zombies.
"I'm not interested in post-apocalyptic narratives, because they tend to be so simple," he said. "It's kind of like: 'Well, civilization is gone. I guess we have to eat dogs, or something.'"
“I’m more interested in the mindset,” he added later. “How do you get to the point where you want an apocalypse to happen? How do you get to the point where you want to walk away?”
Kaczynski was born in Poland and lived there until he was 12 years old. In 1985, his parents brought Kaczynski and his younger sister to Germany on travel visas, and they stayed.
Kaczynski’s father was a member of Solidarity, the trade union turned political movement that was then working against Poland’s communist ruling party, and they’d been granted asylum. Eighteen months later, they were in Minnesota.
“Some people have picked up on the fact that I’m from another country, that maybe that makes me look at these things from an outsider’s point of view, because I came from a very different socio-political environment,” he said. “Looking at America, maybe it’s easier to set myself outside it.”
Kaczynski attended the University of Minnesota in the mid-1990s, where he was a double major in art and architecture. At the time, he was also making mini comics and drawing a comic strip for the Minnesota Daily, where he worked in the arts and entertainment department.
His interest in comics wasn't always appreciated by his professors.
"It was always a challenge to propose a comics project in any classes because, you know, it just wasn't seen as somehow appropriate," Kaczynski said. "I had a print class and I did this comic for it, but the professor insisted that I frame it and put it on the wall, and I was like, 'No, it's a book.'"
That's the set-up, and here's the punch line: After years spent in New York City, where he worked in advertising, Kaczynski returned to Minnesota and he now teaches in the comics art department at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, one of a handful of institutions in the country now granting degrees in comics art.
It’s going to be a busy year for Kaczynski, who is planning to have another book on the shelves later this spring collecting his “Trans” series of mini comics. That book will be released through his own imprint, Uncivilized Books, through which he’s already published acclaimed cartoonists Gabrielle Bell (“The Voyeurs”) and Jon Lewis (“True Swamp”), among others.
He’s also assembled a band of local cartoonists and independent comics publishers to organize Autoptic, an art-comics-music festival coming to a downtown venue Aug. 18.
Kaczynski said the local comics scene has matured a lot since the 1990s, when he was stapling his own mini comics and sending them through the mail. Kaczynski said a place that “used to feel far away from where things were happening” doesn’t so much anymore.