Dave Pressler in 2004 for a Halloween show at The Key Club, We Have Your Toys.
Robin Williams and Scarlett Johansson are among the stars who have flocked to the art of Dave Pressler. Do you like robots? Do you like monsters? There’s bound to be something to your liking from the multi-hyphenated artist. Indeed, Pressler excels as an illustrator, painter, sculptor and character designer. You can always find him at his website and, if you’re in Colorado, you can go view his latest show, The Right Tool for the Job: The Future of the Robot Industrial Revolution, at Telluride Arts HQ Gallery from August 30 to October 1, 2019.
Scarlett Johansson buys a Dave Pressler sculpture from Munky King in 2004.
In this interview, we chat about the process of making art, the loneliness of robots, and how anyone with a healthy determination can become the artist they’ve always wanted to be.
Dave Pressler at Telluride Arts HQ Gallery
Telluride Arts HQ Gallery
THE RIGHT TOOL FOR THE JOB
The Future of the Robot Industrial Revolution
EMMY AWARD-NOMINATED, MULTI-HYPHENATE ARTIST DAVE PRESSLER RETURNS TO TELLURIDE WITH NEW SHOW EXPLORING THE FUTURE OF ROBOTS AT WORK
Telluride Art Walk
Thursday, September 5, 2019 | 5-8 pm
August 30, 2019 – October 1, 2019
Telluride Arts HQ Gallery 135 W Pacific Ave, Telluride, CO 81435
The Telluride Arts District is proud to present the next solo exhibition of artist Dave Pressler, The Right Tool for the Job: The Future of the Robot Industrial Revolution. As the specter of automation and artificial intelligence continue to advance, slowly replacing more and more blue collar jobs, Pressler imagines a parallel universe in which his classic robot characters must show up for factory work the same way we begrudgingly did at the turn of the 20th century. The illustrator, painter, sculptor and character designer has already had a busy 2019, but this show once again breaks new ground for him as an artist: it will be the first time he’s exhibiting a new body of work comprised almost entirely of graphite on paper.
“We’re having another industrial revolution right now, but most people aren’t really talking about it,” explains Pressler. “There’s all this rhetoric about immigrants coming in and stealing blue collar jobs, but it’s not really true. It’s the same thing that happened in the 1800s, when local furniture-makers and garment makers were suddenly replaced by factories powered by steam and assembly-line workers. We’re seeing the same kind of job displacement that we did at the start of the 20th century, but this time it’s being driven by automation and AI.”
Pressler, a self-described blue collar artist, hails from a working class background in the southern suburbs of Chicago. Growing up in a factory town, he was always surrounded by people who made a living working with their hands. To this day, it informs how he sees his role in Hollywood and the low-brow, pop art worlds. Pressler originally moved to Los Angeles in his early 20s to pursue work as an actor, but in the 90s, he shifted dramatically toward production and character design. This work required the creativity of an artist, yes, but more importantly, it required the discipline to sit down and do it—to put in a hard day’s work and get ‘er done, not unlike a blue collar job. From there, his career path almost became traditional, seeing him rise through the ranks to become production designer on the Jim Henson Company’s B.R.A.T.S. of the Lost Nebula, followed by The Save-Ums and Team Smithereen. Eventually, he co-created the Emmy-nominated Robot and Monster for Nickelodeon, all while continuing to develop himself as an illustrator, painter and sculptor in the low-brow art market. All of his two decade plus career was explored recently in his retrospective museum exhibition, “Idea to Object,” at Lancaster Museum of Art.
The humorous but gritty worlds populated with robots and monsters that Pressler creates have always involved his characters begrudgingly fulfilling their duties, almost like holding up a robot-tinted mirror to the lives we have to live to make money and keep society going. For the first time ever, with this automation and AI-driven industrial revolution we’re currently witnessing, Pressler’s whimsical robot world is coming into its own and perhaps serving as an extension of reality. Pressler’s newest exhibition humorously goes behind the scenes of what the robots will have to deal with as we pass off more and more work to them.
Listen to the podcast interview by clicking the link below:
In Seattle, if you’re concerned about public safety, you shouldn’t also have to worry about being labeled a NIMBY but that’s a problem with Seattle politics. It’s become such a problem that frustrated citizens are more than ready for a change in their so-called progressive city government. Well, I put on my reporter’s hat again and interviewed singer/songwriter Abby London who debuted a music video that speaks to many of us in Seattle who are simply looking for a fresh new approach and some common sense when it comes to issues of housing, homelessness, and public safety.
Sergio for city council. A campaign with style and substance that has struck a chord.
In my interview, Abby speaks with great conviction about how she can’t recommend Seattle right now to out-of-state friends. This concern rings true with so many people here in Seattle and beyond. It’s not very difficult for folks outside Seattle to relate with. We close our interview with a call for all Seattle voters to get out and vote in the August 6th primary election. Don’t be left out!
Children observe the movements of the US Border Patrol agents from the Mexican side where the border meets the Pacific Ocean, Tijuana, Mexico, on Friday, November. 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
Yesterday, The Nation magazine released an open letter to the US Congress speaking out against inhumane conditions at the US/Mexico border. You can read that post right here. I decided to put on my reporter’s hat and address this news story promptly. I was looking over the list of the over 40 prominent authors who cosigned and I noticed the one graphic novelist on the list, Anya Ulinich. Of course, my eyes rested on each and every participant given such an impressive list. But I concluded that I was unable to resist getting a few words from Anya Ulinich. As I said to her beforehand, I wasn’t expecting too many words, just whatever might come to her mind. When I asked her what it meant to her to be an immigrant, she said it simply meant that she went from living in one place to living in another place. And, yes, it should be as simple as that.
Ulinich went on to say that, “as a parent of two children, I know that every day that a child is put through fear and discomfort is traumatic. I can’t understand a person who would think that these conditions are acceptable for whatever bureaucratic reason.” As for hopes for the future, Ulinich hopes that The Nation’s Open Letter reaches Congress and that Donald Trump is not re-elected in 2020.
To hear the interview, just click the audio link below:
Ulli Lust is an artist who has created some of the most engaging work in comics. Her long form works include Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life (2009), and her latest, How I Tried to Be a Good Person, both published in the US by Fantagraphics Books. These titles are wonderful testaments to the power of auto-bio graphic memoir. You can read my review of the latest title in the previous post. In this interview, I chat with Ulli Lust about her work and about being an artist. The transcript follows and you can also see the video by clicking the link below.
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Do you find that creating comics is becoming easier for you?
ULLI LUST: It’s absolutely easier. After the first one hundred pages, you get into the flow of the book.
What do you think people in the United States might not understand about the great love for comics in France?
Maybe it’s not well known that the French comics readership is the second largest comics market in the world, after the Japanese. And the third largest is American. France is not a very large country and yet it is producing so many comics, I believe it is 5,000 per year, with all those readers, I don’t think that’s common knowledge. The French love comics.
Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life
Please share about your writing process. For example, when you are working out a narrative, do you recite it in your head and then share it with friends, tell them the story and see what they think?
It actually is a very good technique to tell your story to other people because you get to know what points are interesting and which are not. The problem with my comics is that the stories are too complex to tell in a short from to a friend. I need all these pages to bring out a story’s details which sometimes are not very logical in itself. If I do tell a story to a friend, I mainly keep to the fun parts. I don’t talk about all the details that seem illogical. For example, with Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life, I would talk at parties about the stories involving the Mafia but I could never really communicate the real impact of the whole trip because these stories aren’t simply funny.
Would you share about your drawing and comics production process. For example, how do you color your work?
The colors I do only on the computer. I care about the linework. It needs to be strong and fixed. The color is only a second layer. I want it to just be flat. The color doesn’t need to have character. So, the computer coloring is perfect.
It’s an aesthetic choice. You don’t want to mess with shading and other effects. You want the color to serve a secondary function.
I like the old-fashioned printing of the early 20th century. The lithographs were very flat. The colors were very separated. The linework is very important but the shading effects are not important. I don’t think that is necessary for comics, at least not for the comics that I create. I really like the more raw drawings.
How I Tried to Be a Good Person
What can you tell us about the love triangle between the characters Ulli, Georg and Kim? What can you tell us about this problematic relationship?
I told this story about a problematic relationship because the problematic stories are always more interesting. I’m in a very happy 20-year relationship with this man (points over to her partner, the artist Kai Peiffer) and we don’t have any problematic stories to tell! I told the story of the triangle with Georg and Kim because I find it important to say that you don’t have to stick to a monogamous partnership. That has its own set of problems. Actually, I was surprised at how well that triangle relationship worked for a time and I wanted to show that. That it didn’t end well in the end is a pity. Maybe it makes for a richer story and brings in other social aspects. It was important to talk about domestic violence. I didn’t experience that a second time, only that one time.
Could you give us a taste of what it’s like leading a class in comics since you teach at the University of Hanover. What are the typical expectations of students?
I teach drawing, comics and storytelling. My students are mainly graphic designers, not illustrators. I do a lot of exercises to train their senses, curiosity and attitude as creators. I think the mindset is important as an artist. Whatever you do, a comic, a painting or a website, it all requires a certain mindset.
How might you compare the process of making comics with other forms of art? For example, with painting and comics, the process begins very loose and bit by bit you are refining.
I envy painters because they can create with their raw emotions and they don’t have to think so much. There are so many details to juggle with comics. I think it’s easier to do a big painting than it is to do a work in comics.
Do you have any observations on the art and comics scene? You always need to maintain a certain cool appearance as an artist even though that has nothing to do with how good an artist you are.
I feel at home in the art scene. I don’t feel at home in a more restricted environment. So, I don’t need to play it cool.
Who are some cartoonists right now that really wow you?
I like a lot of the American women who are creating comics and storytelling: Lauren Weinstein, Leela Corman, Keiler Roberts and Liana Finck. If I were to put together an anthology, I would include them as well as other cartoonists. I discover them through the internet. And they’re really great.
Any final thoughts? Anything else you might like to add?
For sure, there are plenty of things. Going back to teaching, I would tell students that want to go into comics that it isn’t instant success. It involves so much work. My students need to create a comic during the course but I don’t push them to continue on with it after the course is done. It has to be their own decision. They really have to want it. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense.
Be sure to take a look at the video interview by going to the link below:
How I Tried to Be a Good Person is a 368-page trade paperback, published by Fantagraphics Books.
Masters of Comics: Inside the Studios of the World’s Premier Graphic Storytellers is a unique behind-the-scenes look at the studios and work habits of some of the all-time great comic book artists, published by Insight Comics, with interviews by Joel Meadows. It is a pleasure to get a chance to chat with Joel Meadows, a fellow comics journalist. Mr. Meadows jumped into comics journalism in 1992 with his own Tripwire Magazine. In this interview, we’re going to unpack what that all means. There have been so many others who have joined the ranks of comics journalists, including myself, so there’s plenty to unpack!
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Joel, thank you for joining me for this conversation. We’re going to chat about Masters of Comics and the world of comics journalism. You begin in 1992 as a young guy who is compelled to create Tripwire, a magazine of genre culture, and that has evolved into an exciting new website presence and the publication of significant books on pop culture. I believe you really hit upon something with the original Studio Space and now the current Masters of Comics. As a jumping off point, share with us some of the thinking that led you to pursue a collection of in depth process interviews.
It started with the magazine, you mentioned Tripwire. We used to run a feature, Studio Space, where we interviewed artists and illustrators in order to get a closer look, get behind their work: the way they work and how they approach their work. We began with Tim Bradstreet, Phil Hale, and John Bolton. I found it fascinating and I thought it might be fun to pursue this further as a book. We put together a line up of artists for Image in 2008 and that was an impressive book. I was very proud of that book. That came out 11 years ago. We had the late great Joe Kubert. We had Sergio Toppi. We had Steve Dillon. We had Howard Chaykin. I can’t recall everyone. It was a pretty amazing list. I was very proud that we had managed to gather all these great artists together and get into each of their headspace and look at how they actually created work and how each studio was different from the next.
Tripwire magazine, circa 1990s
I love the fact that you have books out in the world. For me, my first loyalty is with print. We both go back to a pre-internet perspective. It used to be that to have something in print was the be all, end all. You feel secure with print. You can feel a bit uncertain about the internet: things can be completely wiped away. The whole website might blow up but you can always have a print edition somewhere. Do you feel like that sometimes?
A little bit. We switched to the web back in 2015 and it has its pros and cons. If you make a mistake you can always go back and fix it. But there’s something about the physicality of a book or a magazine. There’s the tactile nature of it. Say, if you meet someone and they ask you what you do, you can direct them to a website but, in some ways, it’s even nicer to be able to show them the book that you’ve published or the magazine that you edit. There’s something about having something physical that is hard to beat.
Exactly, that’s what I want to stress to everyone. Of course, you can go to a tutorial on Youtube but it’s so great to be able to pick up a book and pore over the pages and make discoveries. I think of someone like John Paul Leon, an amazing artist who will be new to a lot of readers. There’s one title that he worked on, The Winter Men, that really sticks with me. You’ve got such a wonderful range of talent, everyone from Frank Quitely to Bill Sienkiewicz to J.H. Williams III, and everyone has their own way of working. There’s so much to consider, of course, over creating the work physically or digitally or a combination of the two.
Maybe it’s a generational thing. I interviewed Mike Kaluta for the book and he works physically with pen and ink. J.P. has more of a mix. Walt Simonson works physically but he does fix lines digitally. I think it was Laurence Campbell, who does work physically, who said that, with digital, he misses the idea of being able to have a happy accident. You might make a mistake but it’s a good mistake. It brings the work to life a little bit more. In some ways, it comes down to digital coming across as too precise. The idea that you can go in and fix a mistake in Photoshop can leave some artists feeling that something is missing. Obviously, other artists love digital. Sean Phillips he draws his line art digitally but he also paints physically. He went back to painting for some of his covers and some of his work for Criminal. He likes to jump between the two. It really depends upon the artist. Some like the tactile experience of physically painting. Others like the convenience of digital. So, it comes down to a case by case basis.
Sean Phillips doing digital work.
Yes, I think it does come down to a case by case basis since you can’t totally peg it as generational. You have so many young artists who enjoy doing work physically. I even wonder sometimes if using markers is really the best approach to coloring your work. But, hey, if an artist can make it work with markers, then why not.
Michael William Kaluta doing physical work.
I want to ask you about your own process. Maybe you can take us behind the scenes of how you got the book put together. Did you personally interview each artist in their studio or were some interviews over the phone?
It was a mix. I got to visit some of the artists personally: Mike Kaluta, Walt Simonson, Posy Simmonds, Laurence Campbell, and Sean Phillips. The rest were e-mail or telephone interviews and, for those, they supplied the photographs. I would have loved to have interviewed in person Eduardo Risso but he’s way over in Argentina. The same with Rafael Albuquerque. He’s in Brazil. I did the photography for the artists that I met with in person.
It’s a seamless presentation, how all the profiles were put together into such a compelling whole.
Insight did a great job with the design. It looks beautiful. They did a great job with the typography and the way all the images fit, the comics art and the photography. It holds together really well as a cohesive package.
There are 21 profiles here. Maybe you can tell us something more about the decision-making process in choosing artists. It is a stellar line-up of artists. Rafael Albuquerque. Tim Sale. Yumo Shimizu. The list goes.
We wanted to have a cross section of artists coming from different disciplines. For instance, Walt Simonson is very much a pen and ink guy. John Paul Leon is more of a marker artist. Dave Johnson is a cover artist, one of the best. If we picked 20 or so artists that were all in the same style, then it would have gotten repetitive. So, we wanted to have something that was varied in terms of approach and actual work.
Share with us about the world of comics journalism. It was a whole other world when you began in 1992. The field was wide open. Back then, there were only a few outlets, like The Comics Journal. Today, it’s a relatively crowded field, especially when you add in all the various tiers of involvement.
It has changed. The Comics Journal had its moments. I used to enjoy Amazing Heroes, going back to the late ’80s. The biggest one was Speakeasy. It had a column by Grant Morrison. It was a very irreverent magazine. That was a big influence on us at Tripwire. Back in the ’90s, you also had Wizard, which really wasn’t for me. And, yeah, I never connected with The Comics Journal. Today, there are a number of good websites. There’s a digital magazine based in the UK that is doing a lot of good work called, PanexPanel, run by Hass Otsmane-Elhaou. And Forces of Geek, with Stefan Blitz, does excellent work too. A lot of sites are just running press releases. At Tripwire, we try to dig deeper. We interview the creators and the key players. We try to look at the bigger picture. It’s a challenge.
Amazing Heroes (1981-1992), published by Fantagraphics
The thing with press releases is that it’s a balancing act. You don’t want to rely on them. You have to really pick and choose. Some are quite informative and newsworthy. What is the criteria for you when it comes to content on Tripwire?
We try for variety and we try to cover people that other websites don’t. For example, we’ve recently run two interviews with Scott Dunbier from IDW. His artist collections and special projects are a great celebration of comics history. So, we try to pick people like him. We’ve interviewed Chuck Palahniuk a couple of times. We’ve interviewed Philip Pullman. We try to go beyond the boundaries of many comics websites. I want to dig a bit deeper like we did with our interview with J. M. DeMatteis. We try not to cover everything. And we try to contextualize our interviews and explain the significance of our interview subjects.
I do my best to go in depth with my interviews. And I’m always on the look out to go beyond the boundaries of a typical pop culture website. I will naturally gravitate to some novel, which may or may not have anything to do with comics. I might bring in an essay, or whatever. It just happens organically and it helps to keep things fresh and bring in a cross section of readers.
Yes, we do that too on occasion.
Speakeasy, “the organ of the comics world,” March, 1990
I wonder what your take is on alternative comics. My partner, Jennifer, and I are both cartoonists. We come from that indie alt-comics scene. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Page 45 quote.
Yes, I am.
It’s a brilliant observation by Stephen Holland, owner of the UK comics shop Page 45, about how “alternative comics are the real mainstream.”
There’s a lot of great material. I read indie comics. I’ve read the likes of Joe Matt and Daniel Clowes and Adrian Tomine back in the ’90s. I tried to keep up with their careers. There’s incredibly talented people. You have someone like Ed Brubaker who started life as an indie cartoonist and moved into the mainstream. He’s one of these guys who can straddle the two. I believe the Page 45 quote gets it right. You can give someone who doesn’t normally read comics a book like Berlin, by Jason Lutes, and they can appreciate it. But they will have a much harder time with a Batman or Teen Titan graphic novel which relies on more in depth comics knowledge.
MASTERS OF COMICS
I just need to ask you about what’s been on your pop culture radar. For instance, what was your take on how Game of Thrones on HBO resolved itself?
You have to feel sorry for the creators of the show since you can’t satisfy everyone. I remember when the Sopranos ended. I really liked how it ended but there were a lot of people who weren’t happy. A big show like that, which has been around for years, it’s almost impossible to satisfy all of your audience. I think the ending to Game of Thrones was okay. To be honest, I’m not sure how else HBO could have ended it.
There are some shows that we in the States have to wait for from across the pond. But then there’s also the reverse. For example, the new Twilight Zone on CBS All Access. Are you looking forward to that one?
I am curious. I enjoyed Get Out a lot. I think Jordan Peele is quite talented. I’m curious as to whether or not they’ve managed to keep that original flavor.
I’ve gotten a chance to view the whole season and I think it’s coming together. I think it’s going to be of those shows that will probably remain a bit uneven but can have exceptional episodes so you root for it.
There’s quite a bit of TV. I’m trying to catch up with Jessica Jones. I’m a bit ambivalent about the Marvel shows on Netflix. I enjoyed a lot of Daredevil and Luke Cage. I think the big problem is that a lot of these shows run too long. They would be much better off with shorter runs of six episodes per season. Another one, Punisher, I just couldn’t finish that.
How would you like to end our talk? Anything else you’d like to add about Tripwire or Masters of Comics?
We continue to evolve the Tripwire website. We’re hoping to organize a talk that ties in Masters of Comics at the Society of Illustrators in October during New York Comic Con. It would include Walt Simonson and Shawn Martinbrough. It would be very nice to have an event tie-in for the book. We’re also looking forward to some collections of interviews from Tripwire. This is something we’re working with another publisher on. The plan is to have the first book available in time for next year’s Comic Con in San Diego. So, that’s exciting. We’ll be returning to print after a bit of a break.
That would be so exciting to have a talk at Society of Illustrators. I hope that works out.
Well, thank you. We’re hoping to pin that down.
Thanks so much, Joel.
Thank you, Henry.
You can listen to a portion of the podcast interview by just clicking the link below:
Masters of Comics: Inside the Studios of the World’s Premier Graphic Storytellers is a 184-page full color trade paperback, with 21 profiles, with art samples and studio photographs, published by Insight Comics.
Keep up with Joel Meadows and Tripwire magazine by going right here.
During a recent visit to Portland, Oregon, I interviewed Jason Leivian, who runs Floating World Comics, one of the best comic book shops you could hope for. This is a comic book shop taken up to the level of a curatorial experience with everything neatly organized in different categories.
Floating World Comics holds the distinction of being one of few comic book shops that also functions as a publisher. During this interview, my goal was to bring out all that is special about Floating World Comics, and Jason Leivian proved to be a most excellent host. I hope you enjoy the video interview below:
I’ve come back with some choice titles published by FWC and we will be taking a look at them in the coming days.
When in Portland, or whenever you wish to find something exceptional in comics online, be sure to visit Floating World Comics.
BEFORE HOUDINI, script by Jeremy Holt and art by John Lucas
It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to interview writer and graphic novelist Jeremy Holt. His most recent works include After Houdini, Skip to the End, Skinned (Insight Comics), Southern Dog (Action Lab), and Pulp (comiXology), which IGN has called, “…one of the best one-shot comics of the year.” For this interview we try to cover a bit of everything with a focus on Holt’s most recent title, Before Houdini.
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Jeremy, thank you so much for doing this interview. We’re going to focus on Before Houdini, your latest title with Insight Comics as well as do our best to bring out something about you and your creative life. I’ll start with the introduction by comic book writer Matthew Rosenberg for Skip to the End, another work you did with Insight Comics. In his introduction, Rosenberg talks about the urgency of punk rock and indie comics: both are raw and unfiltered. That brings to mind your one-shot, Pulp. I think, in the end, whatever the genre, whatever the vibe, you want your work to be honest, right?
PULP, script by Jeremy Holt and art by Chris Peterson
JEREMY HOLT: First of all, thank you for having me, Henry. Over the last ten years of making comics, I’ve thought a lot about the stories that I want to tell. I think, at the beginning, most creators go for those big bright ideas that might get them noticed. I was guilty of that. For instance, I tried doing a zombie story, not realizing that market was pretty saturated. In the course of finding collaborators and pitching to publishers, I’ve found myself taking ten steps backward and having to re-evaluate myself, as a writer and a creator, and really thinking about those stories I want to tell. So, yes, honesty is a very important factor for me.
Share with us how you go about creating a multi-layered character like Jonny, in Skip to the End. He’s got a lot of rough edges. He comes from a certain subculture. And yet people can relate with him. Or maybe sometime from Skinned or After Houdini, whatever comes to mind.
For me, usually it starts with a concept. That’s usually how my ideas begin, with a concept that seems like a really cool idea. Then, from there, I start to develop the main characters, the cast if you will, and then the plot. If those three things don’t actually connect, even after thinking about them for days, weeks, months, I tend to move on. So, as far as characterization, that’s an ongoing process as I’m writing the stories. What I like most about a lot of the projects that I’ve worked on that have resonated with the readers is that, at a certain point, if you’ve done your job as a writer and figured out who these characters are, where they come from, where they’re trying to go, at some point during the writing process, they actually start making their own decisions and speak for themselves. Maybe in an early version of an outline for a specific issue, I may have Jonny saying this but, by the time I am actually writing that scene, so much has happened leading up to the writing of that scene that he ends up saying something more true to his character than I’d even thought to note originally. That’s always fun to see.
Oh, sure, that’s all part of the process. So, share with us what I’m thinking of as a fascination with Houdini. What can you tell us about the creation of the Houdini books?
That’s a great question. To be honest, the idea of writing about Houdini began with the original artist I’d worked with, Kevin Zeigler. We met through mutual friends. We both went to Savannah College of Art and Design. He was a freshman and I was graduating. So, we missed each other by a year. But, through networking, his name kept coming up and so we got together. I would pitch him ideas but nothing seemed to gel. Then I decided to try a really good writer’s exercise: ask my collaborator what they liked to draw. He said he was very interested in Houdini. So, I began to do some research. One book stood out in particular: The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero by Larry Sloman and William Kalush. That book opened my eyes to the idea of Houdini being this covert spy. So, I brought that back to Kevin and we tossed that creative ball around. That is how After Houdini came about, that collaboration.
I’d like you to share something about the storytelling process. You’re a graduate of the the Savannah College of Art and Design, known for its Sequential Art program. I envision you with a skill set to create your own comic alone if you chose to. But you’ve fine tuned your path to focus on being a comic book writer. Should I see you as someone like Ed Brubaker who did create comics in the auteur tradition but ultimately came to the realization he needed to focus on being a writer?
Well, no, not exactly like Ed Brubaker. I studied film. In essence, I was around storytelling but I concentrated on sound design which is more post-produciton, sound editing. I only did that for about a year after college. It really just wasn’t for me. I’d done some writing in high school but I had never viewed myself as a writer. Let’s see, I graduated from SCAD in 2005. I didn’t collect comics as a kid. My oldest brother was a collector. It wasn’t until 2008 that I read The Dark Knight by Frank Miller and that opened up a door and made me want to start writing. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know how to start. So, it was a lot of trial and error. That’s what the early years were like.
SKINNED, written by Jeremy Holt and Tim Daniel and illustrated by Josh Gowdy
We all have our own unique perspective on the world and we’re all dealing with something. As a writer, you find ways to dig into a character to one degree or another depending upon the project. Sometimes it’s more direct. Sometimes it’s more subtext. Do you have a preferred approach in your storytelling? More direct or more subtext or does it just depend? I think of your comic, Southern Dog, which basically goes for the jugular.
I try to walk that fine line between both being direct and using subtext. I definitely pull from real life experience as an Asian-American, and being an identical triplet, as well as being adopted. So, identity is something that is at the front of my brain. Skip to the End is probably the only story I’ve written that is not somehow drawing from my own experience. Jonny was a character I knew nothing about firsthand. I’m not a drug addict. I haven’t lost anyone to suicide. So, there was a lot of research I needed to do in order to feel comfortable writing about someone from that perspective. Generally, I try to weave some personal experience into a narrative that isn’t directly taken from my own life since that’s part of the fun of creating stories. You get to live vicariously through these fictional people.
SKIP TO THE END, script by Jeremy Holt and art by Alex Diotto
What do you hope readers will get from your Houdini books?
You get a sense of adventure. Before Houdini has a substantially darker tone than After Houdini since it has my take on Jack the Ripper. I think you get a sense of wonder from these two books. You get fun action adventure stories.
You’re living in Vermont. You came from Brooklyn. Maybe you could share with us what it’s like living in Vermont. And I’m also curious if you’ve had a chance to visit the Center for Cartoon Studies, located in White River Junction, Vermont.
I did spend a good part of a day there. It’s a very small town. It’s very distinct. The Center for Cartoon Studies is right in the middle of this one single winding street. I’ve met its co-founder, James Sturm, before. He gives talks around the country. And I’ve met people who have given talks there or taught or went to school there. Vermont is a pretty small state so you end up rubbing elbows with folks. As far as why I’m in Vermont, I’m recently divorced. My ex-spouse took a job in Middlebury, Vermont so I ended up here. My friends thought I’d move back to New York. And I love New York. I lived there for five years. But, honestly, the quality of life here in Vermont is substantially higher in a lot of ways to the daily grind of living in New York City. And I still go back two or three times a year to visit with friends. It makes for a nice balance.
Page from BEFORE HOUDINI
I can see why the Center for Cartoon Studies would want to be in Vermont. You get to share that same mellow easy-going atmosphere.
Yeah, I think so. There are fewer distractions for a writer. I think, when I was younger, I was naive enough to think that the city providing me with inspiration. And in a lot of ways it did. But it also provided a ton of distractions. Since moving to Vermont I’ve become exponentially more productive than when I was in New York thinking that I was prolific. In fact, I’ve produced more, in a shorter amount of time, than when I was living in New York.
What might you tell us about two upcoming projects, Made in Korea and Virtually Yours? Are you still working on them or are you shopping them around?
Both of those have publishers but I can’t disclose who. As for Virtually Yours, I have finished writing and the artist is well under way working on it. And regarding Made in Korea, I’ve scripted two of six issues. I’ve outlined the entire series. I have a very clear idea of where it’s going. I plan to script the rest of it in the next two months. I’ve pitched a couple of new projects this week so I’m waiting to hear back from those publishers. I need to keep my fingers crossed.
Page from BEFORE HOUDINI
It sounds like you’re in a really great position. You have these impressive titles with Insight Comics and you’ve got a number of new projects well under way. It looks like you’re right where you need to be.
I think so. The important thing for any creator to figure out is working at a pace that isn’t daunting. Obviously, early on, I wanted to be a full-time writer and quit my day job. I do tech support during the day. But, to be honest, I am producing enough work in my free time outside of my day job that I’m hitting my deadlines without a problem. I know that, once I didn’t have a day job, my relationship to my creative work will change. I’ll be depending upon that in ways that I don’t now because I don’t have to worry about making a ton of money off my work. And I kind of like that. I like that there’s no pressure and I can just create and have fun with it. So, I’m not sure that I’m going to quit my day job anytime soon even if I have the opportunity because I think it makes me work harder.
And you have something that is really working, a really well calibrated routine. So, you don’t want to mess with it.
I think so. As a creative person, it’s about moving that goal post, not being afraid to say that something isn’t working, that expectations need to change. That allows you to keep working. For creators that don’t make these adjustments, it’s easy to burn out. You can end up feeling defeated or pessimistic about your career. I think it’s totally normal, totally acceptable, and even helpful, to move that goal post, to set expectations that are right for you at whatever place you are in your life.
Page from PULP
We could pretty much bring this to an end unless you had anything else you might like to add.
This was great. Thank you for your questions. Thanks for your in depth look at my books. That’s a first.
Well, I found Pulp, for instance, at comiXology. It’s there for anyone to find. I highly recommend it. I particularly appreciate the indie flavor to it.
For me, Pulp was a writing exercise. I wanted to see if I could tell a story within 24 pages. I think, from the beginning of the concept all the way through production, it took Chris and me five days to put it all together. It was ridiculously fast, unnecessarily fast. But I still think it’s one of the stronger stories that I’ve written.
It definitely has that urgency and energy that Matthew Rosenberg was talking about in the introduction I began with.
Robert Sikoryak, aka R. Sikoryak, is an artist that I’ve always admired. You have probably seen his work grace the cover of issues of The New Yorker or maybe you know him from one of his comics adaptations of literature classics. He’s best known for featuring his virtuoso adaptation of masters in the comics medium in the service of a satirical work, like Masterpiece Comics. Another great example is the recent Terms and Conditions, an ambitious and hilarious comics adaptation of the iTunes contract we all must agree to but never bother to read.
NEW YORKER COVER
Robert Sikoryak was formerly an associate editor and contributor to RAW, the groundbreaking 1980s comic anthology. He has also drawn for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Onion, and Nickelodeon. During a recent visit to New York, I got a chance to interview Mr. Sikoryak about a number of things, including his ongoing Carousel, a revue, going back to 1997, that features a number of notable cartoonists such as Lauren Weinstein, Michael Kupperman, and Jason Little who present their work as part of a slide show performance. It is my pleasure to present to you the following interview. A video portion is also available and you can access that below too.
Illustration for The Nation by R. Sikoryak
Read the interview below and do make sure to go to the video as well which covers different aspects, specifically Mr. Sikoryak’s early career. All in all, as I said to him, his 30+ year career adds up to such an impressive professional life. I like to bring out the term, “legend,” but Sikoryak would not hear of it! He’s very modest, indeed. And quite generous in sharing insights. I’ve done numerous interviews and do my level best to respectfully bring out the best in those individuals I have the privilege to interview because, for me, it’s a sacred trust that I’ve entered into. And it’s an added bonus when you get to engage with someone who is just as passionate about sharing information with the reader. For instance, I asked Sikoryak about starting out as a cartoonist and he was very careful to explain how, even as a child, he was intrigued with creating parodies, which is a linchpin to his career.
Let’s turn our attention to the self-published indie comics known as, “mini-comics.” A lot of cartoonists find that, once they’ve created a mini-comic, it gets in their blood and they’re hooked. Tell us about your experience with mini-comics.
I’d say it has gotten more into my blood lately. I had done a few mini-comics when I was younger but it was only after I’d started working with Kriota Willberg, and going to comics festivals, that I got the bug to do more minis. She was doing them as well and so we did them together. It’s like I was saying earlier, sometimes it’s easier to get rolling if you have a community to work with even if you’re doing it yourself. If you’re working on a project together that can sometimes spur you to action a little faster. We also started doing 24-hour comics and that helped me break out of some of my habits of working. When I was doing Masterpiece Comics, I was spending a lot of time refining the story and the art and honing it all done to exactly what I wanted. That approach was very specific and time-consuming unlike my commercial work where I need to turn around the artwork a lot faster. So, I could get caught up tweaking my own work when there wasn’t an imminent deadline. That said, 24-hour comics helped me think of ways to try to work faster. And that approach helped inspire how I worked on Terms and Conditions.
Steve Jobs and Silver Surfer!
Share with us how you used the 24-hour comics working methods in Terms and Conditions.
For 24-hour comics, I wanted to work with a text that was already written. So, the first ones that I did were poetry comics. I did one with Walt Whitman and another one with Edgar Allan Poe. I took existing poems of theirs and illustrated them. The Walt Whitman poem was a Jack Kirby monster comic. The Edgar Allan Poe one was done in the style of Richie Rich. Those were fun and I thought of them as rough drafts towards making comics with text. This was around 2014. I started thinking about how comics had evolved in the last twenty years since I’d graduated from school. I wanted to do a graphic novel. I’d only done short works up until then. What could I do in a long form? I was looking for something new to adapt and then I thought about the iTunes contract. The big joke about it is that it’s long. I’m always looking for an absurd angle for making comics. To quote Apple, I was looking for a way “to make things different.”
From Terms and Conditions
One of the best things about it is that you don’t have an emotional connection to the iTunes contract. There’s not a visual component to them. There’s no plot, no characters. Some people might argue that there’s some kind of narrative. But there’s not the drive that you’d find in a traditional story. The images could reflect anything and even go beyond the text. The images could refer to anything. I wasn’t going to be literal with a character just reading the text. I was going to bring in other images. I took pre-existing comics pages and modified them. I created a main character from Steve Jobs since he already had a specific uniform. Zuckerberg and Bezos have a look: the glasses, turtleneck, jeans, and sneakers. But Jobs had an actual costume he wore. I didn’t have to make any of the comics characters look exactly like Steve Jobs since people recognize what that costume signifies. Every page of the book is drawn in a different style with the main character dressed in the Steve Jobs outfit. The Jobs costume is as iconic as the Charlie Brown zig zag so that’s perfect. Once I had all this set up, it became easy to start the comic.
From Terms and Conditions
For the 24-hour comics first draft to Terms and Conditions, I did ten pages and they were very specific choices. I had Little Lulu, Rex Morgan, Astro Boy, the Dark Knight, X-Men, Peanuts, Sandman, Dilbert, Spider-Man, and The Walking Dead. All with the Steve Jobs main character running throughout these pre-existing pages from all these landmark comics. After I drew them, then I inserted the iTunes contract text into them. I wasn’t drawing them anticipating the text. For the most part, I didn’t know what the text would say in relation to the drawings. Some pages ended up getting shuffled around. I moved the Rex Morgan page to the beginning because I wanted something banal, very basic and straightforward, to start off with. Something grounded in reality before moving on to something more fantastical. I ended up putting out the first 30 pages as a mini-comic. I was only selling it at some comic shops and online. I drew it in chunks of ten or twelve pages. At some point, the iTunes contract got longer! I had to add 25 more pages. It actually allowed me more pages to play with and include more people I like Allie Brosh, Fiona Staples, Raina Telgemeier, and Kate Beaton. People who have a big impact on what’s happening in comics right now. I’d never done that before where I addressed the current generation of people in comics.
Steve Jobs and Kate Beaton!
I also wanted the book to evoke the internet: everything is in this book. Obviously, that’s an illusion on the internet just as it is in the book. I was going for an sense that anything can happen, that you can stumble upon any style of comics. I also wanted it to be international and not just be about my own tastes. My instincts told me that I wanted to represent all that is possible in comics.
From Terms and Conditions
I come from an art background and I can certainly appreciate that you’re working with comics, treating comics, at the level of an art form, which it is.
I was thinking about conceptual art. Kind of the way that John Cage would approach something. Cage would talk about using chance to compose music. Cage would try to get out of his own head when composing, like consulting the I Ching or more elaborate means to take it away from what he might make if he were solely making aesthetic choices. In a sense, Terms and Conditions, tries to get closer to that approach.
Steve Jobs meets Wonder Woman!
I go look at the iTunes store to see what’s popular and there would be Transformers and My Little Pony and that made sense since these are properties that exist in multiple media. That led me to putting in a Transformer page and a My Little Pony page since they are a big part of comics too.
After the mini-comics of Terms and Conditions came out, I asked Françoise Mouly what she thought I might do next. She suggested that I put them on Tumblr. I did it and let friends know about it. I ended up getting a lot of media attention just from the Tumblr. That was crazy. I didn’t yet have the Drawn & Quarterly book. That was still a year away from happening. I hit a nerve that I didn’t realize I would. It became an internet sensation for a second! Which is a long time for me. That was really gratifying and exciting.
That’s the theory, that you create something first on the internet, create some buzz and then approach the publisher. Or, best case scenario, the publisher approaches you.
Yes, I’d worked with Drawn & Quarterly for many years. They’d serialized by Masterpiece Comics in their anthology and then collected them into a book. They knew me. I wanted them to do it. And they said yes, after checking with their lawyers on legal issues. And we have not heard from Apple.
From The Unquotable Trump
Not even a peep from Apple?
I could be wrong but maybe it’s better for them not to say anything. They probably don’t want to encourage people to do this. I think I’ve gotten approval from their silence. I take that as a sign. I know they’ve seen it. I don’t know how they couldn’t. I’m pretty sure that some of the people who interviewed me contacted them for comment. They didn’t respond. I know people within the company and they say it’s great. But no official comment. I can see that if Apple actually said it didn’t like it then that would seem punitive and, if they did the opposite and said they liked it, then that would open the floodgate for others to do their parodies.
People are going to do what they want anyway. Like me, I wasn’t even planning on doing such a book. I was looking for a new way to break from my habits of making comics. I wanted to think of comics in a different way and the work did all that. Having it come out as book was amazing and great but only something you can hope for, not count on.
CAROUSEL Comics Performances and Picture Shows, hosted by R. Sikoryak
Tell us about how Carousel came about.
When I was in college, I was flirting with performance art. I happened to see Roz Chast do a reading of her gag cartoons at an event in the early ’90s. I was really struck by seeing the artist with their work on stage. She was charming. The audience loved it. I thought about how theatrical it was since there’s the charge of being very in the moment in front of a live audience. And I thought I needed to do this with my own comics. I worked a little bit with theater companies and I was already hosting variety shows and that sort of thing. Converting my comics into a slide show, around 1992, was a whole new thing for me. Other people had done it before me but that really worked for me. My strongest material was my comics! So, I started doing my comics as slide shows. Within a few years, I had met other people in the scene from variety shows and other artists who made visual storytelling for theater. Like Brian Dewan who showed the film strip last night. He’s someone who was in my earliest shows. He’s a musician and a visual artist. He makes these idiosyncratic pseudo-educational slide shows dealing with big philosophical issues, which I love.
Carousel photo by Andrea Tsurumi
By the late ’90s, I’d organized my slide shows into what’s become Carousel. In the early shows, I had people like Ben Katchor, David Sandlin, and a lot of other people from the downtown performance scene. By 2001, it had become my main performance habit. So, four to eight times a year, I do these shows where I invite cartoonists and other visual artists. I’d had on people who do live music with projections, people who do drag with projections. Cartoonist Matthew Thurber makes these large scrolls. The drag queen I had on recently is Sasha Velour, who won Rupaul’s Drag Race a couple of seasons back. I met her as a cartoonist. Her current performances still retain a vital visual element.
Mine are more like radio plays or podcasts with actors reading lines for the all the different parts with background music. Or, as in the case of some of the other people you saw last night, they will talk about their work or tell stories that are visually supplemented. Or, in one case, Hilary Campbell showed her rejected New Yorker cartoons which is a very straightforward way of doing it and very comedic. I think it’s very excited to be able to see the person with their work. Everybody does it a little differently. It seems like a simple enough idea. I like to have six or seven people in each show. I think the personality of each artist gets to come through. In the best cases, you can really get some insight into what the work is about. I’ve had shows where I go back and reread the comic after having listened to them read. It’s endlessly interesting. It’s a way to bring it to people who might not see it otherwise. Certainly, with the internet, it’s easier to come across this stuff but even so a lot of the people who present don’t necessarily put their work out in that way. Doing it in the theater brings in a different crowd. So, you get to show theater people in a different form.
The comics came to life in such an organic way and you just don’t know how people, or the cartoonist, might react.
It reminds me a bit of the commentary track on a DVD. It all depends on the work people make. My work tends to be conceptually tight so I tend to honor it as it is. But it’s great to see how people might explode the format and find other ways of doing it.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’m working on a new volume of Masterpiece Comics. My latest mini-comics help update folks that there’s more on the way. I do storyboards for an animation studio. I teach at Parsons. I’m doing more book illustrations. I try to keep myself surprised.
Well, we can leave it there. Thank you so much, Bob.
Thank you, Henry
Visit R. Sikoryak right here. For more information, and how to purchase, Terms and Conditions, Masterpiece Comics and The Unquotable Trump, visit Drawn & Quarterly right here. When in New York, check to see if your schedule and the Carousel schedule align right here.
CANNABIS: The Illegalization of Weed in America is the new graphic novel by Box Brown, published by First Second. It is a most remarkable book in how it packs together a disparate clump of facts and myths and makes sense of it all. Here you find a detailed yet accessible answer to the question: How do you take something essentially good and make so many people believe the exact opposite–and why? The short answer: Because it is something running counter to the self-interest of those in power. The long and twisted history of how and why cannabis became illegal in the United States is the latest in the always insightful and informative Box Brown books. The following is my interview with the author of artist himself conducted via email:
Will we ever get back to a sensible approach to cannabis? Will cannabis ever lose the stigma attached to it?
It’s getting better every day and I think in states where it is legal we are seeing the stigma end. They’re seeing that it’s a good, normal industry and the world has not in fact ended. It’s more difficult for teenagers to get cannabis in legal states, people aren’t turning into sociopaths or anything. I think people really need to live through things to really get used to them and understand the real truth about things. My new mantra is that we need to legalize the whole plant. There is still tons of stigma baked into medical cannabis laws. As a PA medical patient you have to go to this special facility with all kinds of security and pay in cash, etc. this is not helping the stigma. It makes patients feel like they’re carrying some sort of radioactive material. It’s going to be a constant push and pull for the next 10, 20 years or more!
In looking back at how a stigma was created over cannabis, you feature how Mexicans were turned into scapegoats during the Great Depression. The “over-immigration” of Mexicans was blamed for lack of jobs for U.S. citizens, the evil of marijuana and whatever else Mexicans could be blamed for. I guess everything old is new again, right?
This was what immediately stood out to me. I knew cannabis was tied to race now. It was disheartening, though unsurprising to find out it’s been like that since the beginning. The first laws against cannabis were in places where Mexicans were butting up against Americans. El Paso, TX had the first local ordinances and it was 100% just so they could arrest Mexican people, almost nothing has changed in these 90-100 years.
The road to cannabis illegalization in the U.S. was secured when it became a matter of self-interest for the federal government to discredit cannabis. And you show how William Randolf Hearst promoted his own brand of “fake news” in the campaign against cannabis. That propaganda took its toll and has left its mark. Is it your hope that your book will help in rehabilitating how the general public views cannabis—or are you just reporting the facts?
I think my philosophy in this respect is that the facts themselves are so absurd that they make their own argument for legalization. I want people to walk away from my book not only supporting legalization but realizing that this isn’t just a cash grab. Ending cannabis prohibition is righting an 83-year-old wrong. It’s not there simply for people to get rich. We screwed up royally with prohibition and we need to fix it.
What sparked your interest in pursuing this book? Maybe you can provide a window into what set the wheels in motion. It seems to me that it might be a case of the more you learned about the federal government’s misinformation campaign, embodied in Anslinger, the more it motivated you to document it.
I was arrested for cannabis possession when I was 16, 1996. Since then this has been an extremely passionate interest of mine. It just didn’t make sense to me that cannabis possession was treated with handcuffs, probation, possible juvenile detention, court, etc. and underage drinking was treated with a phone call home. I found out in my research that in 1996, the year I was arrested the Clinton administration was looking to be tough on drugs and the number of people arrested for cannabis in the US in 1996 DOUBLED from the previous year. I was caught up in Clinton wanting to be perceived as tough on drugs.
What can you tell us about your process? I asked you once at some convention about your hand lettering and you said that you prefer to hand letter since you get the best kerning that way. I think you’re right. Share with us how you put a page together and what you do by hand and what you do digitally.
Okay, so I do most everything with traditional tools: pencils, bristol board, ink, micron pens. Everything is hand-lettered. Then I scan inks and do finishing in photoshop, this basically just means adding screen tones. Although recently I bought a bunch of actual screentones from Japan and scanned those. So now when I add tones in photoshop I’m adding in a scan of an actual screentone.
Share with us anything you might like about the research involved. How long did it take for you to put this book together?
It’s kind of a never-ending process. I feel like I’m still researching the book even though it’s been done for a long time and is now published. I had to edit my bibliography for space, the book would have had 20 more pages. Even still I feel there are things that could be updated but you have to call it a day at some point. The whole process takes 1 to 2 years.
You have certainly achieved an impressive level of excellence in creating graphic novel format work that manages to go into detail, finds just the right places to linger, while being mindful of being concise and consistent. Has your storytelling style come to you naturally or did you set out with a plan on how to tackle a subject, being it Andre the Giant or the story of Tetris?
I often think of it the way I think about comedy improv. I think all of writing and creating is improvised. There’s never a plan from the beginning. Even people who do sit down and make a plan are improvising when they’re making up the plan. You’re always making stuff up as you go along and then editing out the bad or irrelevant or inauthentic stuff. I’ve definitely learned a lot since I made the Andre the Giant book. I think I’ve matured a lot as a person and as a cartoonist. Still trying to work on my drawing though!
What lies ahead? Please give us any final thoughts on projects up ahead, whatever comes to mind.
Very focused on cannabis right now, but I will say I’ve got two projects in the pipeline both concerning 1980’s television.
CANNABIS: The Illegalization of Weed in America is a 256-page trade paperback available as of April 2, 2019. For more details, and how to purchase, go right here.
Early in the morning on Monday, October 9, 2017, wildfires burned through Northern California, resulting in 44 fatalities. Brian Fies’s book, A Fire Story (Abrams ComicArts), is his honest, unflinching depiction of his personal experiences, including losing his house and every possession he and his wife Karen could not fit into the back of their car. In the days that followed, as the fires continued to burn through the area, he posted an initial version of A Fire Story online and it immediately went viral. The video segment KQED produced about his comic went on to win a Northern California Area Emmy Award. He has expanded his original webcomic into a full length graphic novel that goes deeper into environmental insights and the fire stories of his neighbors and others in his community. A Fire Story is an honest account of the wildfires that left homes destroyed, families broken, and a community determined to rebuild.
A Fire Story Book Tour
I was able to catch up with Brian Fies at his reading at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, part of his book tour. This interview is the result of a subsequent email exchange.
Brian, thanks for doing this interview. You have built a very interesting portfolio of comics and graphic novels. You’re searching for answers and you’re compelled to express yourself through comics in order to explain big themes whether it’s history and technology (Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow) or personal challenges (Mom’s Cancer). When you were creating that webcomic about your first impressions of the Northern California fires, did you already intuit the making of your next graphic novel?
Thanks for your gracious thoughts on my work, I appreciate it! I can’t claim any grand strategy—as my wife Karen and I fled our house that night, I wasn’t thinking, “Ah ha, I’ve found my next book!”—but I knew I was an eyewitness to an extraordinary event and felt like I had to tell people about it. To bear witness. My first job out of college was as a newspaper reporter, and I felt that journalism gene kick into gear. Even as I walked back into my neighborhood the next morning to see what had happened to my house, before I even knew it was gone, I was taking photos and making mental notes that I knew I’d need later. The next day, I bought shoes and art supplies, and started writing and drawing.
As I worked on the webcomic, I was certainly aware it might become my next graphic novel. I’d been down a similar path with Mom’s Cancer: live through something terrible, find something interesting to say about it, put it online because that was fast and cheap, and see if anybody cared enough to read it. If nobody had read either webcomic, that would have been the end of both of them, and I would have been satisfied with that. I got my story out into the world; what the world did with it was out of my hands. In the case of A Fire Story, within a few days it went viral. Around 700,000 people read the webcomic on my blog. News and other media picked it up. San Francisco PBS station KQED made it into an animated short-film that was seen by 3 million people and won an Emmy Award. None of that was guaranteed or planned, but when it happens, the odds are good it’ll be a book if you want it to be. I thought about it and decided I was up for it.
Keep in mind, the whole time this was not the most important thing going on in my life! My family lost our home. Our neighborhood of about 200 houses looked like a nuclear bomb had hit it. People died. Thousands in our community were suddenly homeless and jobless, and we had no idea what to do. We had to figure out a lot, fast. My little comic strip, and the hullabaloo that soon came with it, wasn’t top priority. We were busy.
Page from A Fire Story
Share with us what sort of person becomes a cartoonist. I think everyone can potentially draw and write but there’s a certain personality that remains persistent and follows through with work year after year. I think it’s a combination of passions: a desire to report, to draw, and even perform. What do you think of that, and how it ties in with your new book, A FIRE STORY? Heck, I’ll also throw in: Did you always want to be a cartoonist and was it just a matter of time?
There may be as many motives for cartooning as there are cartoonists. I loved making comics from childhood. As a teen and early adult I tried very hard to make a living at it—which at the time meant becoming a syndicated newspaper cartoonist or drawing comic books. I got some nibbles but, like most people in most creative arts, I failed. I went on to have a family and a couple of different careers I enjoyed, but always kept cartooning. I sold some freelance work. I illustrated a light bulb catalog once; they come in an amazing variety of shapes and sizes. But my real career in comics didn’t begin until my mother was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer and I decided the comics medium was the best way to tell our family’s story. In that sense, maybe it was just a matter of time. When the opportunity came, I had sufficient skills to do it.
Page from A Fire Story
Most cartoonists I know are shy. More introverted than not, though I know some on the other end of the spectrum who are hyper-outgoing. I think one of the attractions of cartooning, certainly for me, is that one person can do it all themselves. It’s not collaborative, like animation or filmmaking usually are. I’m the god of the little world I create on the page. Even my handwriting communicates a mood or feeling. For better or worse, and sometimes it goes really wrong, you’re getting one person’s singular creative vision. It also has incredibly low barriers to entry. For the price of paper and a pen, you too can be a professional cartoonist!
It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that cartooning doesn’t strictly require being a good artist. I mean, it helps, but making pretty drawings is one of the least important parts of it. Comics are about storytelling. Not making one breathtaking picture, but making a dozen, a hundred, a thousand pictures that move through time and space, and guide a reader through ideas, characters, plot, and emotions. A comic drawn in stick figures could make you weep or cheer if its storytelling were compelling enough. That said, the better an artist you are, the more tools you’ll have in your storytelling tool box.
The other thing I’ve come to believe is super important is authenticity. Readers can tell when you’re faking it or jerking them around. If you tell a story from the heart—one that really means something to you, one that only you can tell because your entire life went into making it—somebody will respond. A comic about a routine planet-devouring laser-mounted space dragon, or a group of wizards and goblins who bumble through Lord of the Rings-like adventures, will probably bore me. Anybody could do that. But if your true passion in life is collecting bottle caps, and you can draw a comic about bottle caps that makes me care about them as much as you do, I’ll be your fan for life.
Page from A Fire Story
There’s a wonderful nugget you brought up during your reading about kids from families that survived the fires in Nothern California. You point out that in your webcomic you have children requesting bedtime “fire stories.” What a great way to come around to the title of your book. I’m assuming that’s where the title comes from. Any story behind it—or was that title a natural fit and you ran with it?
Yeah, that nugget came from some people I know who lost their home, and whose grandchildren insisted on reading A Fire Story every night for weeks because that’s how they understood and processed what had happened to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. And Grandma would even read the naughty words because, while kids shouldn’t say those words, sometimes they’re the right words to say.
I gave the title much less thought than you’d expect. Again, Mom’s Cancer was instructive for me. It’s simple, direct, memorable, tells you what the story’s going to be about. Same with A Fire Story: it does what it says on the label.
A Fire Story by Brian Fies
You have said that this graphic novel has changed you. You’ve got a different perspective. For now, of course, it’s a time of healing and rebuilding. My heart goes out to you. As you did in your reading, I think the best place to end here is with that one page that sums things up so well where it’s you and Karen simply wanting to go home. It’s also a time to get the word out on A FIRE STORY. That said, this is a long way around to simply asking what do you hope folks will get out of your book?
Thanks so much. As I describe in the book’s end notes, I’ve gotten two kinds of feedback to the webcomic and graphic novel that mean the most to me. People who went through it with us tell me I got it right. And people who didn’t go through it tell me it helped them understand what it was like.
I hope A Fire Story stands as a work of respectable, responsible journalism that gives a full picture of what living through a disaster is like for an individual, a family, a community. It doesn’t have to be a fire. I think a hurricane survivor and I would have a lot to talk about. In an even larger sense, I think A Fire Story has something to say about any family or community in any type of crisis. These experiences and our reactions to them are nearly universal. We all have more in common than we think. So A Fire Story is my story, but I hope folks might see that it’s their story, too.
Page from A Fire Story
A Fire Story is a 154-page hardcover, in full color available as of March 5th. For more details and how to purchase, visit Abrams ComicArts.