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Alt-Comics Icon Kaz Talks SpongeBob and Jersey

The artist behind Underworld will appear in Portland to celebrate his first unabridged collection

Over the course of the past 20 years, Kaz (real name Kazimieras G. Prapuolenis) has made a name for himself by being gross. His long-running comic strip, Underworld, is chock-full of heroin junkies and petty thieves in dilapidated buildings, getting by however they can. His new book, Underworld: From Hoboken to Hollywood (Fantagraphics, 320 pages, $39.95), is the first complete collection of this work—with occasional notes from the author himself. We spoke to Kaz about his Jersey upbringing, the geopolitics of dark humor, and a certain fella who lives in a pineapple under the sea. JAMES HELMSWORTH.

WW: Underworld has such a distinctive, inner-city look. Is that based on places you've lived?

Kaz: I couldn't live there or I would be dead by now. But I grew up working-class poor in Hoboken. I've lived in Jersey City in tenement buildings, in poor neighborhoods. But it's also based on things I loved, like The Honeymooners or the old Abbott and Costello TV show, where they're living on the edge and not paying the rent.

Certainly the backgrounds are. I'm exaggerating, but certainly the peeling wallpaper. The floorboards are probably not that much of an exaggeration. The cartoon backgrounds, the buildings that you see are probably what I wish New York and New Jersey looked like, with a big clown head on top of a building.

Was making a dark strip one of your goals?

I wanted it to be a humorous strip. Like, really gag-based: set up and punch line. The stuff that I was seeing in the daily papers based on that format was very, very lame. I knew that I had to be edgy. To make someone laugh who's seen it all, you have to push things.

I've been asked many times, "Why is your stuff so dark?" and all I can think of is, my parents are from Eastern Europe. When I was a kid, I remember seeing cartoons from Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia where all the jokes were very, very dark, and I felt a kinship to that. People laughing at their struggles.

My brother is three years younger than me. And we were talking about getting punishment from our parents. Sometimes it was rather harsh and physical. And as we were talking about these whippings that we got, my wife at the time was like, "How can you laugh at that?" It's the only way we can deal with it!

I understand you work on SpongeBob SquarePants now. How's that going?

We're all adults working on a kids' show, so the jokes that fly around the room are quite adult and will never make it into the cartoon. For SpongeBob, I'll sit down and think, "How did I feel when I was a kid? What were my fears? My interests?" No drug jokes.

Go: Kaz appears at Floating World Comics, 400 NW Couch St., 241-0227, floatingworldcomics.com, on Friday, Feb. 12. 6 pm. Free.