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.
KISS NUMBER 8 by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T Crenshaw
My new favorite graphic novel is Kiss Number 8, written by Colleen AF Venable and illustrated by Ellen T. Crenshaw, published by First Second. This is a book that is about family, self-discovery and gender identity that requires that you find a nice spot to read because you won’t want to put it down. Our main character is 16-year-old Amanda. Her friends call her, Mads, which is a fitting nickname for an exuberant personality. Mads is mad about life but struggling to find her way. And growing up in a conservative religious family adds to the complications. Conventional wisdom is telling her that she should be pining over boy-next-door Adam. But her heart is telling her that she wants to be kissed by girl-next-door Cat. Our story is set in 2004 which provides a whole set of pop culture references while also giving everything a timeless quality.
Venable has a wonderful way with evoking the trials and tribulations of young souls. She was telling me about her background in playwriting and I can clearly see that ability to lift up characters and events and have them dance upon the page. It’s about knowing how to craft one scene after another and one moment from the next. Consider the opening pages: a steady sequence of panels depict Mads bumping along as she gains experience in how to kiss and, when we reach Kiss Number 8, it’s enigmatic, something we’ll come back to. Then we proceed a few more pages in and we realize there’s a whole other mystery up ahead.
Page from Kiss Number 8
Ellen T. Crenshaw and Colleen AF Venable
Crenshaw is superbly matched with Venable as her artwork is so in tune with the thoughtful and gentle quality to this work. We chatted about process and the inevitable topic of how time-consuming graphic novels can be was discussed. Well, far be it from me to dissuade Crenshaw from changing anything about her methods. Each page is utterly beautiful. She has a perfect thing going with her use of hand-drawn ink and ink wash. It is a delight to the eyes. We also chatted about how First Second appreciates the beauty of black & white comics and how it is often the best way to convey more mature themes. It certainly works in this case.
Page from Kiss Number 8
No doubt, this is a book working on many levels and is sure to engage readers from teenagers on up. If you’re looking for a good book exploring LGBTQ themes from a teen perspective, this is a wonderful read.
Page from Kiss Number 8
Kiss Number 8 has the depth of a good play and the pace of an immersive work in manga. It is a queer story that will resonate with young readers as well as any reader who loves a good coming-of-age tale. This is a 320-page trade paperback that will reward the reader upon rereading it! Lots to savor in the way of word and image! Available as of March 12th, for more details and how to purchase, go right here.
It is truly a pleasure to share with you a rising talent, singer-songwriter Mariel Darling. You might think of her as a future Taylor Swift or Lady Gaga. Who knows? She certainly has got talent and determination and, at 16, she has some solid songs like “No Mirrors” and “Unknown,” to show for it and a work ethic going back to the age of nine. So, yes, Ms. Darling is the real deal. I believe in Mariel Darling. So much so that I created the above illustration. Mariel, if you ever need an artist for an album cover, I’d be more than happy to do it.
A Western Massachusetts native, 16-year-old Mariel Darling started recording music when she was only nine years old after being discovered by manager Jackie Sarkis (formerly of Radio Disney) and working with producer Shaun Bless, and by age ten she was already turning heads performing at the New York Knicks halftime show. Even in her early years, the young singer knew that she wanted to use her talent to help promote positive messages, and by eleven she was already hard at work writing and performing songs for the National Education Institute encouraging other kids in a fun and upbeat way to read, study, and focus on their education as a way to further their well-being. These initiatives lead Darling to perform on bigger national stages and festivals including the Maritime Festival, Washington D.C.’s CureFest for Childhood Cancer, and the Camplified Tour which saw her perform in front of thousands of teens and tweens at summer camps across the nation at fourteen.
Mariel enjoys motivating her fans with her music. During our conversation, Mariel said she’s excited about connecting with the huge fan base of girls and young women who follow her music. She’s proud of her songs, like “No Mirrors,” that resonate with her fans and speak to positive self-image and empowerment. And another more recent song, “Unknown,” speaks to the challenges in young lives in facing the unknown. Mariel says she admires those performers that are able to reach out like Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish. No doubt, you can add Mariel Darling to the short list of the best influencers. Listen to my interview by clicking the link below:
Keep up with Mariel Darling on Instagram right here.
Bill Griffith is an exceptional cartoonist. Robert Crumb has called his ongoing Zippy the Pinhead comic strip, “by far the very best daily comic strip that exists in America.” It is my pleasure to present to you my interview with Mr. Griffith. He has a new book out, Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead, published by Abrams ComicArts. If you happen to be in New York City, consider heading out to Big Apple Comics Con this weekend, March 9-10, at the Pennsylvania Hotel on 33rd St. and 7th Ave. right across from Madison Square Garden. Mr. Griffith will be signing books on both days and he will be in conversation with Charles Kochman, Editorial Director for Abrams ComicArts, 1:30 pm on Saturday, at the Globetrotter Room.
Zippy the Pinhead
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: I am speaking with Bill Griffith, the cartoonist of the legendary comic strip, Zippy the Pinhead. The comic strip went into syndication in 1976 and continues to this day. Mr. Griffith has a new book out, a graphic novel that explores the person who became the inspiration for his famous character. The book is entitled, Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead, published by Abrams ComicArts, available as of March 19th. Bill, thank you for doing this interview.
BILL GRIFFITH: Sure, glad to do it.
I want to start with talking about your creation, Zippy the Pinhead and moving right along into your work in bringing Schlitzie onto the page. There’s a number of jumping off points, maybe we can start with what it was like for you as a young struggling artist, going back to 1963, and your first viewing of Todd Browning’s 1932 cult classic, Freaks. I love getting the flavor of a time and place. Could you give us a taste of that era?
Okay, 1963, I was in my sophomore year at Pratt Institute Art School in Brooklyn, New York. And I had no idea that I would eventually become a cartoonist. At that point, I thought I was going to become Vincent Van Gogh, Jr. I just had a romantic idea of what it was like to be an artist. I was always tuning into odd things in the culture. There were people at Pratt coming off the beatnik world. So, there was that element, the older people, and they would hold events now and then. And I think that’s where Freaks came in. I can’t be sure exactly. I think it was someone from Pratt who got a print and was showing it in various places. I saw a notice for it at the student union building at Pratt in ’63. I had a feeling it was up my alley. All I knew about it was from the flyer which described a slice-0f-life story about a circus sideshow in 1932. I didn’t know who Todd Browning was or that he’d directed Dracula. This was long before the internet.
It was 1963, pre-hippie/post-beatnik bohemian New York, which I thrived in. I loved that whole world. I’d take the train from Pratt and go over to Greenwich Village and hang out in coffee shops and book shops. Viewing Freaks came out of that bohemian scene. As I say in the book, I came out of that viewing in a hypnotic daze. To see a full length film like that, from that era, in a loft, was unusual and captivating in itself. By the time it was finished, I felt like I’d had an acid trip, even before there was acid. My mind had somehow been rearranged molecularly. I returned to my little apartment on Myrtle Avenue knowing I’d had a major experience. This was long before I was a cartoonist. It took a long time for that to sink into the recesses of my mind and come out seven years later when I did my first comics.
Todd Browning’s Freaks, 1932
You had these impressions in your mind that needed time to process. You hint in your graphic novel that there were a number of attempts to do something with that material in painting since you were a fine arts student back then. Is there anything you can tell us about that time? Do any paintings from that period survive?
Very little of that period survives, very little physically survives. I have maybe a dozen drawings. All the paintings I did were taken off their stretchers and stored in my mother’s garage in Leavitown, which were then sold at a garage sale. So, they don’t exist but I did take photographs, but no photos of paintings after my seeing Freaks. There was no prior research material that I was aware of. I could only bring Schlitzie back through memory. I tried to do a few paintings. The style I was doing was a sort of flat style that owed to Picasso and Pop Art. It wasn’t satisfying to me. I just let it go, reluctantly. It was left percolating for all those years, waiting for me to realize that I was really a cartoonist. When I was being a painter, I was repressing that narrative wiseguy desire to make people laugh. It had to come rampaging out in the late sixties, in 1970, I started doing comics, first in New York in underground newspapers and then in San Francisco.
Real Pulp Comics #1, 1970
So, by 1970, you create comics for Real Pulp Comics. You’ve tapped into the zeitgeist. When you look back, were you always thinking about becoming a cartoonist or did that really come later?
I see my brief fine arts career as a detour. When I was a kid, even in my early teens, I didn’t think about becoming a cartoonist, I just loved comics. I didn’t give much thought back then to any career. When I went to art school, there were no comics courses except at the School of Visual Arts where, ironically, I now teach. And I was unaware of that too, of any college level validity being given to comics. So, I happily walked into the fine art world of art school. Once again, bundling up a desire to be a cartoonist that I was unaware of. It wasn’t until I saw Crumb’s first comics, which would have been in ’67, while I was still living in New York, I remember it being in a Times Square magazine store, not a head shop. And I picked up Zap Comics and I thought, How did this guy get inside my head? I thought he must have been like 65 years-old with such an old-fashioned style. It catapulted from there. I went home and started doing half-page comics. At the time, there were three or four underground newspapers in New York and I submitted stuff to them. Kim Deitch, my classmate as Pratt, I knew he was doing comics. So, I submitted to the East Village Other and to Screw magazine. Within six months of seeing Crumb’s work, I completely abandoned painting.
Page excerpt from Nobody’s Fool
I can understand that. Would you say you were influenced by Crumb’s work insomuch as wanting to do detailed type of work?
Yes, I think conscious or unconscious, or both. I think every artist’s first appreciation of Crumb’s work is the beauty of his artwork, his pen line. Then you go from there to humor, satire, sex, and all the other elements that make up his comics. The first thing I noticed was an old-fashioned and, therefore, cool drawing style. It had to have influenced. Of course, when I first started doing comics, I didn’t even know what tools to use since I’d come from painting. My first comics were on stiff illustration board using a Speedball pen point meant for lettering so the lines are very thick, very exuberant but untrained.
My next question gets us closer to Schlitzie. I wanted to talk about how you ended up becoming syndicated. I think of your comic strip sharing a sensibility with a few select comic strips, like Matt Groening’s Life in Hell and Underworld by Kaz. And I wonder about how Schlitzie turned out to fit into that zeitgeist. You began to be syndicated in 1976.
Well, no, that’s not true. In 1976, Zippy began to appear in about 50 alternative weekly newspapers–syndicated only by me. From ’76 to ’85, Zippy was a weekly strip that I syndicated alone. In 1985, the San Francisco Examiner, a daily Hearst paper, was given over to a new generation. Will Hearst III called me into his office and offered that I do a strip for the paper. I thought he meant weekly. No, he wanted daily. That was a huge shock. I remember telling him that I’d have to think about it. I came back with a proposal for six months of backlog, running my weekly archives daily to help give me time to get into the flow of doing new material. He agreed so there I was in 1985.
Then, in 1986, one of the vice presidents at King Features came down to visit me in San Francisco and proposed that King Features take on Zippy as a daily comic strip. Once again, I was very surprised. This was not something I’d sought. Right away, I didn’t think the material was going to work around the country in places like Kansas City. King Features said to let them worry about that. I thought I’d try to kill the deal by asking for a lot more money than I’d been getting from the Examiner and King Features agreed instantly. They agreed to not censor me too. Suddenly, I was in New York signing a contract and trying to show salesmen how to sell Zippy. A couple of them got it and the rest looked like they wanted to be somewhere else.
I remember in 1974, when Art Spiegelman and I were putting together Arcade, and one cartoonist came over with the guidelines for submitting comic strips to King Features. It had things in there like, make sure to draw over-sized heads on your characters. We laughed at the time but this cartoonist was adamant. He saw it as a tremendous platform but we just laughed at him. And then, there I was eleven or twelve years later, doing daily comic strips. Now, I’m not sure how this gets us to Schlitzie.
Zippy was egoless living in a blissful zen-like moment of present. And I thought that Zippy was a way for me to let that part of me out. Freud once said, “Everybody in your dreams is you.” And I think you can apply that to most cartoonists, certainly to me. All my cartoon characters are me, or different parts of me, different mixes of me. And, until I did Zippy, I don’t think I was letting that part of me that was open, uncritical and without a filter, to be expressed in my comics very well. Zippy seemed to be the ideal vehicle for that. And I owe that to Schlitzie. Schlitzie is where I first saw that as a possibility.
How did you intuit that this Pinhead character could become an avatar for something bigger? Or maybe you didn’t know and that’s the whole point?
Well, my first Zippy strip was in response to an editor of an underground newspaper, Real Pulp Comics #1. Roger Brand was the editor and a cartoonist. I’d just had some success with a romance comics parody series called, Young Lust, that actually paid the rent for a number of years for me in the early seventies. And he asked if I’d do something similar to that with two so-called normal persons and one odd/weird person. That was his editorial suggestion. I mulled it over and, coincidently, went over to visit my friend, Jim Osborne. He collected circus sideshow freak memorabilia, including sideshow freak postcards. I leafed through them and there was Schlitzie, that character I’d seen in Freaks. This was the first picture I saw of Schlitzie since seeing the movie. And I thought, Okay, there’s my weird character. And I never intended it to be more than a one-shot where Zippy was this off-the-wall character who was totally disruptive to this romance storyline.
But, as fate would have it, within six months of that one-shot, I was thinking about the main character in my comics at the time, which I still use and I’m still afraid of and love and hate, Mr. The Toad. This is an egomaniacal and miserable character. I started thinking that he could be hard to take alone and that he needed a sidekick. How about his opposite? So, I thought I’d try Zippy. Once again, things evolved and you’re not always totally in control of it. Within six months, the roles had reversed and Mr. The Toad had become a sidekick to Zippy.
Zippy was balancing out this ego-centric character. Zippy was egoless living in a blissful zen like moment of present. And I thought that Zippy was a way for me to let that part of me out. Freud once said, Everybody in your dreams is you. And I think you can apply that to most cartoonists, certainly to me. All my cartoon characters are me, or different parts of me, different mixes of me. And, until I did Zippy, I don’t think I was letting that part of me that was open, uncritical and without a filter, to be expressed in my comics very well. Zippy seemed to be the ideal vehicle for that. And I owe that to Schlitzie. Schlitzie is where I first saw that as a possibility.
Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead
Could you share with us the process of creating this book? It’s not your first graphic novel. You had Invisible Ink come out in 2015, published by Fantagraphics. What was it like juggling a graphic novel and a daily comic strip?
And I’m doing a third one now. It means, pretty much, working seven days a week. If I push it a little, I can do two or three strips in one day and that would give me a few days off during the week to take a break or work on other projects. A lot of people are surprised that I can do a daily comic strip and put out graphic novels and now I also teach once a week. I don’t want to say workaholic. I just like to do comics. It doesn’t feel like work. Schlitzie came about in a similar way to Invisible Ink which was something meaning to happen after my mother revealed to me a 16-year affair she’d had with a cartoonist after my father died. My mother had just handed me material for a book.
I thought it would be unfair to do it while she was alive. The day before she died, she pointed to a file cabinet in her apartment in San Francisco. She said, “I don’t care what you do with anything in my apartment but keep that.” In that file cabinet was a diary detailing her love affair and a 380-page unpublished novel that she had written, a big chunk of it being all about her affair with Lawrence Lariar. So, that project percolated for a long time before it came about. And the same with Schlitzie. After Invisible Ink, I wondered if I had another graphic novel in me. I turned to Schlitzie right away. He’d been waiting in the wings, just like my mother had been waiting in wings. He’s next.
After three or four months, after I finished Invisible Ink, I had a feeling of withdrawal. I missed that work. It’s very different from doing a daily strip. Sometimes my strip has continuity but it’s often a three or four panel self-contained little story. Doing a graphic novel, I can go back to what I used to do years ago when I was doing comics, tackle without a question a 10 or 20-page story. I miss that, the comic long form. And now I’m doing another one.
Schlitzie, the enigma.
What did you learn from doing this book and does Schlitzie remain an enigma even after doing this whole book on him?
He’s always going to remain an enigma to a degree because, as much as I think I tried to make him human, not a freak, he is still a little bit of a Martian. He’s not like you and me. So, to get on his wavelength is not easy. What really made the book work for me were my two interviews with the two people who worked closely with him in his last years working in the sideshow. Ward Hall was a sideshow manager and barker. I talked to him four or five years ago. I had to get him off his barker mentality. When we first started, he went off on a spiel: “Zippy the Pinhead, with the brain of a walnut!” I just let him go on and then I’d ask something like, “What if someone in the audience tormented Schlitzie, what would you do?” Then he stopped doing the spiel and gave me all kinds of nice Schlitzie moments.
But the guy who really gave me the feeling of Schlitzie’s reality and humanity was Wolf Krakowski. Wolf, at the age of 18, travelled throughout Canada with the Conklin & Garrett circus and sideshow and Schlitzie was on the bill. For three months, he traveled with Schlitzie and other people, often rooming with Schlitzie in hotels around Canada. Unlike Ward Hall, he was very sensitive and spoke with admiration about Schlitzie, in a mystical tone. He said things like, when Schlitzie heard music on the radio, he would sway back and forth. When someone made him angry, he would get down on all fours and stare at people. If you let him hug you, you had to be careful not to let the hug go on for too long because he really didn’t want to stop hugging you.
He had microcephaly. He had the cognitive abilities of a 4-year-old. But think about what a 4-year-old can do. They can speak. They can feel. They can have emotion. They can love. They can be angry. So, he had all that. He was just very limited beyond that. It wasn’t until I got that full picture of Schlitzie from Wolf Krakowski, that I really thought I could go on with the book. It would have all been conjecture. With Wolf, I got the real story. I got someone who had not only been close to Schlitzie but who knew what that meant. I’ve told Wolf this many times that, without him, it would have been a very different book or it would have come to a dead end.
Invisible Ink by Bill Griffith
I want to touch upon what I wrote in my review of your book, the idea of a creator’s characters coming to life. Did you have that eerie sensation of Schlitzie coming to life as you put this book together?
Not only did I feel Schlitzie coming to life but I felt half a dozen other characters were with me in the studio. You and I both know that this is a phenomenon. It happens with writers of all kinds. Maybe more so with cartoonists because we deal with both the word and the picture. If you’re drawing the character, you don’t have to wonder what they look like. This is exactly what they look like. When I was doing Invisible Ink, and I put it in the book, at one point I began to feel my mother’s presence literally looking over my shoulder as I was working. It was unnerving. But I got the impression that she was generally okay with my work with a slightly critical view. My mother was a writer. So, I’d imagine her saying something like, “Billy, that last sentence is a little clunky. A rewrite would be in order.”
And I had this one dream where I come down one morning to my studio and find my mother sleeping on my drawing board in a sleeping bag. There she was. She got out of her sleeping bag and said, “Get to work.” And then she just walked away. So, these characters do take on lives of their own, especially if you work on them for prolonged periods of time.
What do you hope readers will get out of reading Nobody’s Fool?
I hope that they will stop seeing Schlitzie to the degree that most people do as a so-called, freak, that their only association with him is through the movie, Freaks. There’s a subculture fandom that has grown around that movie that I’m not entirely thrilled with that takes circus sideshow performers from the past and brings them back to life as self-consciously freakish. I hope that people won’t limit their view of Schlitzie to that kind of thinking. My purpose in doing the book is multiple. But one of them was to bring Schlitzie out of the shadows and show him as a human being. Yes, he doesn’t have a character arc, like you’d want in a Hollywood movie, since he can’t really change but that doesn’t mean he’s not fully human. He’s just fully human in a very different way.
Page excerpt from Nobody’s Fool
I believe that you have achieved what you set out to do and Nobody’s Fool is at the top of my list of graphic novels this year. Is there anything you’d like to add, any new projects you might like to mention?
I can just sketchily mention my new project.It’s another biography. This time it’s of Ernie Bushmiller, the cartoonist who created the Nancy comic strip. It’s as much about him as it is about the world in which he operated, the late teens and early ’20s into the late ’70s and early ’80s. The world of newspaper comic strips, especially within the various New York newspapers. So, it parallels the story of Ernie Bushmiller and the world of the newspaper comic strip. And it will also help anyone who still doesn’t get why Nancy is such a great comic strip. I’m going to go full throttle into why it’s such a great comic strip! As I said in one of the introductions to one of the Nancy collections published by Fantagraphics: “Peanuts is a comic strip about what it’s like to be a child. Nancy is a comic strip about what it’s like to be a comic strip.”
Thanks so much for this interview, Bill.
Thank you. I liked your questions. They were very thoughtful.
You can listen to the interview by clicking the link below:
Zippy The Pinhead by Bill Griffith
Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead is a 256-page hardcover published by Abrams ComicArts, to be released March 19, 2019. For more details, visit Abrams right here.