Comics: ROM, Raw Power, Bike Rider, The Fighter Anthologies: Rub The Blood, No Me, Secret Prison, Cake, Digestate, Henry and Glenn Forever and Ever #2, Lazer, Komicaze, Carrier Pigeon, Yeti. Editor: Suspect Device vols 1 and 2
How did you start working on comics?
My dad came home with an issue of RAW. He always supported comics in a weird way. He grew up reading them, he loved Will Eisner and Lil' Abner. At the time, RAW was being distributed all over the place because MAUS was so big. It was in this issue, I think it was Issue #9, where I saw some comics by Marc Beyer. He had this great, sort of primitive style, and I started drawing comics with the same kind of flattened look. I was 17 and I was great (laughs)! I was 18, 19, 20 and I was still doing it, and somehow I kind of lost the thread, I figured out a different studio practice, started doing more gallery-ready art.
As my 20's petered out I wanted to get back into comics because that was my childhood dream, and I couldn't do it anymore. I had to go back to school to figure out how make comics again. In 2005 I was 35 and taking my first comics course.
My early stuff was all ebony pencils and ball point. Somebody gave me an ink set for my Bar Mitzvah– have you ever seen those cartoons where Charlie Brown trying to write a letter using calligraphy pens? The whole joke is that Charlie Brown can't even write "dear pen pal" without it exploding. That was my experience with nib pens when I was a little kid. SVA kind of guided me into using the nib pens properly, and so now I use those a lot, but also brushes, markers, all kinds of things.
What else changed about your work at SVA?
There was definitely a shift that happened a couple weeks into my first "Comic Book Hot House" class with Matt Madden, Jessica Abel and Tom Hart. Matt was a real hardass about students getting their work done. I remember one night when I was at home and I had a bunch of work to do. I started analyzing why I was putting it off, and I realized comics are my favorite thing to do. I tell my students that sometimes, "think about why you're avoiding the work. Is it just garden variety fear?". There was a conversation that I was having with myself that I changed, telling myself, "this isn't work, it's not labor, it's fun".
That's one of the things that changed, but it also helped just having somebody demonstrate how to get beyond some of the basic stumbling blocks. Like when you're ruling borders with a nib pen and the ink gets sucked underneath the ruler, so the borders get splotchy. My ruler has quarters taped to the underside, which lifts it up off the paper and keeps the ink from getting trapped. Before, things like that would make me feel like fate was against me. It helps when you understand that it's a universal problem with a simple solution.
The hardest part for me was learning that I had to blueprint out the pages. I had this voice in my head saying, A) "you're able to draw in your sketchbooks free-form without any underdrawings so you should be able to do it on the comic page", and B) "even if you can master that, it's going to take away all the spontaneity", and having somebody open that dialogue and say that yes, it's going to take away some of the spontaneity and it's a trade-off. You can always learn to put that spontaneity back into the work.
So you use blue pencil?
No, I'm talking about blue print in the metaphorical sense. I don't really use blue pencil that much, I just mean my underpencils.
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Yeah. I worked on a collaboration for a few years with my best friend, a comic called Bam Bam and the Barbarians. It's a great script, but it's on hiatus, I got sidetracked by other projects. I worked on developing a comic that was based on a screenplay that my brother wrote, but that project is also on hiatus. I tend to finish stuff more when it's all my own creation. I think I kind of stumble into doing successful writing pieces, and it for me it's always dependent on stitching together a lot of pre-existing ideas.
Do you start with the visual ideas? Character designs, or an image you really want to use?
It's simultaneous. It seems like we all have this idea of what creation is supposed to be, and what writing is supposed to be. And when I am with my students, I'll sort of trick them into doing it. I just did this assignment where I had them all do comics based on childhood dreams. I got the idea from a Corinne Mucha comic about how when she was a kid she dreamt of flying, and she woke up thinking she could fly for an entire week. It's a great assignment because the dream will have happened long enough ago that you'll have no choice but to make up the details. You can't illustrate those memories directly.
But at the same time it's got a clear start point.
While they're working on it, I encourage them to let the ideas marinate, think about what was going on inner lives when they were young. So after they do a few pages of the dream I have them "wake up" and then show a little bit of what their life was like at that time. I did something similar when I made ROM, which was a 25 page adaptation of a old Marvel comic, the sort of thing I might have read as a kid. The whole time I was thinking, "1982, I was 12, this is what my neighborhood was like, this is what my bedroom was like". So when I was done with my riff on the superhero comic, I added the kid based on myself as a framing device.
You teach at 3rd ward?
Yeah, I'm super proud to be there.
What are the students like?
Most of them have an art school background so they've been some of my favorite classes to teach because it's so similar to my own background. But they tend to be young, 20's 30's and 40's, and there isn't as much diversity as there is at the other schools where I teach. At Educational Alliance, where I've taught for 5 years, it's more racially diverse, it's more age diverse. I've had 70 year old students there, and I've had 13 years old students.
Do you find that the people at Educational Allaince are familiar with comics in a different way? Do they have different reference points?
Actually, a lot of times it's the 70 year old coming in with a copy of Epileptic. I've heard that the demographic is changing at other schools as well, there are a lot more female students, a lot more diversity. Comics are out there now in a way that they weren't before. People are reading reviews of Persopolis in Time magazine.
When I was 12, I found an American Splendor collection at my local library, and I never forgot the boldness of his choices. There's one story where he's looking right at you for 16 panels in a grid. Just talking. That really stuck with me. Libraries were super important in my development as a cartoonist. My dad was a Librarian and I used to go hang out in his office, and read books about cartooning. There were two Smithsonian collections, and a book called Great Comic Book Heroes by Pfiffer. Those books weren't easy to get back then, and I was lucky my dad had an interest in comics.
So how do you do the coloring, it looks like you're doing a couple of different things?
Right now I'm doing watercolor on my pages and then using gouache on top of it. I'm also doing another project in color where I'm using zipotone. I just had a breakthrough on how to clean up my pages in Photoshop, and I'm hoping that will give me a new lease on life in terms of that program. I've always had a problem with my pages getting greasy and thumb-printed, I carry them around a lot, I do them in sketchbooks, and I've started to notice that the pages get really grimy.
In the past a lot of my teachers warned me away from doing my colors on the inked page. Mastering that has been a steep learning curve. I go back and fourth between new techniques and my old way of working. That's how it was when I was learning how to use a nib pen. I made it sound like it was an easier transition than it was. My teacher showed me how to use it, and then I had a few days where I thought, "I can't do this, then pens are just fighting me too much" and I'd go back to using the micron again for a while. It's been like that with coloring too, I'm not a tech-y guy, I went into grad school in my 30's, on the tail end of the technological revolution. There were all these 20 year olds I was going to school with, and I felt like, on a scale of 1 to 10, they were a 5 or a 7 with Photoshop, and I was a 1. Now I'm a 3, and gradually coming up to 3.5 or 4. I just discovered the magic eraser tool.
So I'll use Photoshop when it's a simple coloring job, with flat colors. I use a variety of things when I'm coloring right on the page. When I did fine arts, color was one of my strengths, so it's been about narrowing the gap between doing what comes naturally to me and doing it it a way that makes the images look really beautiful when they come out of the printer. Gary Panter and Laura Winestein, both have really raw styles, and both told me that they do their work with the colors on different layers when the it's meant for reproduction. That way they keep their blacks really black. but then there are cartoonists, like Vanessa Davis, who once said the idea of keeping the blacks really pure seems almost fetishistic, for her it's ok to have the blacks get a little gritty.
What techniques did you use to make your fine art pieces?
I threw everything at those. They're on huge sheets of paper, and I would do them with a lot of oil painting and layers, glazes, gluing things to the page. When I was just starting out, my bother really encouraged me to use oil sticks. He thought that I was going to be a Basquiat type of artist, and encouraged that in me. My brother was my school for a while, I didn't go to school for art, but he had, and he was like my mentor. So with the big pieces, I'd use oil stick and then let them dry, then I'd go back into them with paint pens and markers, because you wouldn't be able to finesse the line with the oil stick; couldn't get little feather lines. I wanted to keep it raw and honest– but that got frustrating because I couldn't embellish the line, couldn't polish it. I went through a transition where my work was caught between the styles, then I smoothed it all out. I'm still smoothing it out.
So now I'll use an ink wash, then oil paint, then oil stick, then paint pens, then maybe some more oil paint, and then more paint pens, and red and black china marker. I'd fake it a little with colored pencils to make it look like I'd sketched underneath the original line.
Are most of your fine art pieces really large?
Most of them. But those art pieces were a full time thing for me. These days I'm focused on comics.
I make these one page drawings that I give away to people who buy my comics. I have to do them really fast; I don't pencil first, I use a thicker line, and in a way it's like this idealized type of art. A really honest drawing. When I first offered to do it on my website, I thought, "Oh God, every time I get an order I'll have to do this", but it's ended up being my favorite part of the week in terms of drawing. I always learn something about what makes a successful piece of work when I'm done. I think "Why does this work even though I spent just four minutes on it, when in the last two weeks I've spent 17 hours doing zipotone and polishing work on this Henry and Glen comic". I can do really fast, successful, work when I need to, but I've also developed this incredibly time-consuming way of making art.
What are you using for those Drawings?
I mostly use Crayola watercolor markers on those are the backing boards you use to store comics. They're great to draw on because they have a really smooth surface.
What kind of paper are you using to draw your comics?
It's Croquis, you can carry this pad with you, it's portable, and that encourages you to draw.
I read this interview with a former Navy Seal, and they asked him how he got through boot camp, and he said "I changed the conversation I was having with myself". It's about base, ground-level transformation. Transforming the way you think about yourself, and the way you think about what you're doing.
You talked about that earlier, that you changed the conversation that you were having with yourself about getting work done.
And it was that easy?
Not at all. But there's a point where you remember that [your thoughts] are an important component. I don't read a lot of books on positive thinking or anything, but that being aware of that process has helped me. Saying consciously, "I am going to stop feeling this way about making art, and thinking this way about making art; I'm going to think about it in a new way".
Pens: Semi-flexible nib pens, Crowquills, Paintpens, Cross fountain pens, microns.
Brushes: Roundtip watercolor brushes, Pentel or Elmers brushpens.
Ink: Yasutomo Ink
Paper: Croquis, Smooth Vellum Bristol; Stonehenge; Transparent Bond paper