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A Short Interview With Steven Weissman
posted September 22, 2007
 

imageAs we talk about in the following interview, like most everyone else I came to Steve Weissman a bit late, near the tail end of the early, idiosyncratic work that now collected makes up the bulk of the new collection Mean. He was one of those cartoonists you had to read to truly appreciate, despite his having a lovely and eye-catch design sense and style. An under-appreciated writer, he's one of the few cartoonists I know of where other cartoonists will quote random turns of phrase for no particular reason. His idiosyncratic character types, from Li'l Bloody to Sweet Chubby Cheeks, are so perfectly realized you almost feel like they're ideas you came up with first but never found the time to put to paper. Weissman has quietly become one of Fantagraphics' most dependable cartoonists, and as he's an unfailingly polite and entertaining guy as well, the cartoonist has also become one of that company's best ambassadors. I could talk to Steve Weissman once a week, although I get the sense he'd find talking about himself every seven days to be something of a chore.

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imageTOM SPURGEON: Steve, I don't know that much about you, other than I'm pretty sure you live somewhere between Seattle and Tijuana and I believe you have a family. Do you have a day job? How much time are you able to give to your comics?

STEVEN WEISSMAN: You seem to know me pretty well. Ribs Weissman: unemployed drifter who may or may not have a family stashed somewhere. Does he even draw comics anymore? The ones in Mean look pretty old...

SPURGEON: One of the things that Jaime mentions in his introduction that I think was true for a lot of people that got into your stuff early on is that you just sort of showed up. How did you end up getting into comics all those years ago? You hit the ground running.

WEISSMAN: Thank you. Isn't Jaime Hernandez wonderful?

SPURGEON: Can you talk about how your art style developed? You have a unique approach that is reminiscent of kids comics without being entirely like them. Are there influences -- Hal Roach, maybe? How did you settle on that kind of comic as opposed to all the other kinds you could have done?

WEISSMAN: Do you remember "Super Deforming?" Before I saw my first example, in 1992, I really thought "cute" stuff was fake and gross. But this Super Deformed Ultraman, it was so well designed, so well thought out, I began to think about "cute" all the time. What makes a drawing cute? When is it too cute? Why should I hate an unsuccessful attempt at "cute" so much more than an unsuccessful attempt at objectivity? I liked how "Super Deforming" simultaneously mocked and embraced cuteness. It was, somehow, different than "Muppet Babies." So, I wanted to draw something "cute."

Of course, I knew that drawing a decent Charlie Brown or Broom Hilda was much harder than most people think. Up to this point, though, I didn't figure it was worth the effort. Since I'd recently been to art-school, I assumed I could get a handle on "cuteness" pretty easily. That it was still so difficult for me to create an honestly cute piece of art, without resorting to cheap tricks like "mugging" or "sincere eyes,"* was completely humiliating and led me to a renewed appreciation for [my childhood idol] Charles Schulz. This was a pretty big deal.

And, yes, I absolutely adore Hal Roach's Our Gang shorts. The same goes for Shirley Temple movies, Abbott and Costello, and so much of the TV I grew up watching on Sunday mornings.

*I hated how cute art relied on BIG EYES so much that I made it a rule early on to always make my characters squint.

SPURGEON: Your cast of characters are famously classic archetypes. You've probably done this before, so I apologize, but can you describe you come up with the exact models used? For instance, did you characters come out of drawing, or did you sit down and think of various concepts and how you could execute them?

WEISSMAN: This goes back to my excitement about the "Super Deforming" process. Li'l Bloody (little buddy) would have been my first attempt; a deformation of a "Baron Blood" knock-off I used to draw in sketchbooks shared with my teenaged hoodlum friends. I got such a kick out of him right away, I set about creating a "supporting cast." Using a "Frankenstein's Monster" as a best friend for "Dracula" was an obvious choice (as was a "Zombie" sidekick/brother).

From there, though, I let my mind wander. Western heroes like "The Lone Ranger" for the Li'l Tin-Stars (Little Twin Stars), Greek mythology for Kid Medusa (Chrysaor) and, of course, old comic-book ads (X-Ray Spence). I recall trying out "mummies" and werewolves in my sketchbooks, but they were pretty lame so I didn't force it (I did give the kids a dead dog, though, with Elzie Crisler [Segar]).

image"Sweet" Chubby Cheeks (or "Sweet Chubby" Cheeks) worked as a Jekyll/Hyde character, as well as an illustration of the kind of "aw" cutesy that I didn't like. Have you seen the later "Our Gang" comedies, with George McFarland continuing to play "Spanky" when he was 12 yrs. old? I wanted Chubby to be like that. Adults would think he was still cute, but other kids would know better. That idea wore me out for some reason, but once I started modeling him on Joe Cobb, "Sweet" Chubby quickly became my favorite character in the series.

Shaver = Casper.

SPURGEON: One of the things that marked your early comics was a really smart use of color, sometimes just one or two on a page. How was it that you were one of the only alternative cartoonists to be working in color back then? That doesn't seem typical. What were you trying to accomplish with using these really simplified color choice?

WEISSMAN: I'd done some printmaking in school, and had a friend who knew a lot about offset, so I was learning about mechanical color separation. Plus, I'd seen a few contemporary cartoonists, like [Dan] Clowes or Mike Allred, who had done good two-color work (which, of course, is cheaper to produce than four-color).

I don't know why it would seem atypical, but I wanted to make books that would pop off the shelf. Color seemed like a smart way to do that.

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SPURGEON: How do you feel in general about seeing your early work again? Were you happy with the way it looked? Is there an area that looking back you're happiest that you've improved in?

WEISSMAN: I think the comics in Mean are pretty hilarious. They're funny looking, the stories are all over the map, I don't know.

I can admit that, say five years ago, I wouldn't have seen this as a worthwhile project. This was work I had been pushing away from, you know, artistically. Now, I'm pushing off from the comics I was doing in 2002, 2003, and I think I can be more objective about these older stories. Does that make sense?

SPURGEON: Sure.

WEISSMAN: Also, I'm sure there will be readers who prefer this early work to anything I've produced since.

SPURGEON: Did becoming a father change the way you approached doing comics with kids in them?

WEISSMAN: It must have, but I'm not sure how.

SPURGEON: Your stories have a really unique pacing to them, Steve, in that unlike many comics I can never tell if I'm one page or 100 pages away from the story ending. They sort of unfold on their own time. How do you create your narratives? Do you script out, do you break things down visually first, how do you make a story out of your initial idea?

WEISSMAN: Thank you very much for noticing this. The middle of a story is my favorite part; where I can't see the beginning and I don't know how it's going to turn out. I enjoy that feeling of being totally immersed, I believe it makes art more lifelike.

As for my writing process, it varies. Some stories can take years of just daydreaming to work out, while others seem to just flow from one exchange or scene or stunt to being a finished comic. I think the ones that take the longest to write may be those based more closely on my own experiences ("Elzie Crisler, Lost Dog" or "The Neighborhood Champs," both from Mean). I've never really thought of that before.

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SPURGEON: One thing that struck me about reading your stories again is that they're stories of unsupervised children, and you really don't have that anymore. Was the sense of just sort of bouncing around and getting into trouble or hatching plots something that you could relate to out of your childhood?

WEISSMAN: Yes, it is, but are you saying that children don't go unsupervised anymore or that they no longer do in my comics?

SPURGEON: The first one.

WEISSMAN: I don't think either one is true.

SPURGEON: Who do you find funny or particularly worth reading when it comes to comics?

WEISSMAN: I have to say, the most widely read comic in our house lately is called Dr. Slump.

And, of course, all the fantastic work my brilliant friends are doing.

imageSPURGEON: Another thing that's striking about your work back then is how ambitious you were in terms of page design: you have pages with odd panels, pages with big panels, pages with tiny panels, pages dominated by text... Was that on purpose, were you trying to work with different approaches or is that something that just grows organically out of what you want to do on the comics page?

WEISSMAN: It's both, of course. Although I prefer to rely on my instincts when it comes to technique or composition, I am sure I was trying harder to remain conscious of them at the time.

SPURGEON: Can you talk about how you approached the cover to Mean? I really like it, and think in general your books display an elegant sense of style. How important are those kinds of presentation and style issues to you when it comes to putting these books out?

WEISSMAN: My talents as a designer are pretty limited. I've been aware of this for a long old time, and have always consulted friends and worked up very simple cover designs for my books.

Nowadays, I get to work with Jacob Covey, who can make more complex ideas work so that Chewing Gum In Church and Mean are much more attractive packages than my previous efforts.

Of course, most everybody knows that Jacob and I stole the cover design for Mean from Angry Youth Comix.

SPURGEON: Do you already have a next project in mind, Steve?

WEISSMAN: CHOCOLATE CHEEKS.

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* photo of Weissman by me
* latest book
* two of the Yikes! cast members
* two illustrations
* Kid Medusa
* lovely Hitler illustration (below)

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Mean, Steven Weissman, Fantagraphics, soft cover, 120 pages, 156097866X, September 2007, $16.95

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