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A Short Interview With John Kerschbaum
posted March 1, 2009
 

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I don't know what the hell to make of John Kerschbaum. The Brooklyn-based illustrator is as talented as any cartoonist working -- he's one of those guys that seems to be able to draw anything with authority and flair -- and I think I've enjoyed every single one of his comics I've read going back to 1990s Xeric-winning The Wiggly Reader. At the same time, he's not exactly a household name even in the 2000 or so alt-comic households where this might be possible, and the majority of his comics have been intermittently published with very little fanfare. Whenever I get worked up about the injustice of that, I remind myself that Kerschbaum's comics, while consistently excellent and among my favorites, can be horrifyingly violent and very, very, very odd in a way that I can imagine could chase a reader or two away. Such is the case with his late 2008 effort Petey & Pussy, a foray into the lives of two mostly feckless house pets and their misdoings in their limited world of apartment, street, park and, um, neighborhood bar. It's really good. In the interview below, we discuss the new book, working for Nickelodeon's print offerings and a recent major illustration project for The Met. I hope that you'll at least consider sampling his one-of-a-kind comics art; I may never quite figure him out, but I'll always remain a fan. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: John, I'm not sure if I should think of you as a cartoonist, as an illustrator, as both... can you talk a little bit about how your career breaks down in terms of what projects you take on? Has it ever been difficult to keep making comics?

JOHN KERSCHBAUM: Tom, I'm flattered you think of me at all! I consider myself an illustrator by trade and a cartoonist by design. I like to make comics in my spare time which I have increasingly less of.

SPURGEON: You once told The Comics Journal that you might not be making comics at all if it weren't for the Xeric grant you received. Why is that? What did the Xeric give you that's continued to pay dividends in terms of your overall artistic output the last 10-12 years?

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KERSCHBAUM: What I meant was that prior to submitting to The Xeric Foundation, my goal was to sell gag cartoons to magazines. I wasn't doing comics longer than a page. So writing The Wiggly Reader and getting a Xeric grant turned my attention to longer-form comics, comic books, self-publishing, etc.

SPURGEON: How different a mindset is it for you when you move from illustration into comics? Is it a really strong distinction?

KERSCHBAUM: I enjoy doing both and I think they have a number of similarities. They're both about communicating ideas and visual problem solving. They each have their own challenges and rewards. The main difference is with illustration, you work for a client. Some clients want input and enjoy give and take, others just tell you what they need and when they need it. Illustration is about delivering it, on time. Cartooning is more self-indulgent.

imageSPURGEON: I find your characters highly disturbing, and from the people I've talked to about these comics, I'm not alone. Can you talk about how you developed the characters design-wise? Did they come from a process of drawing or did the concept come first? Was there any tweaking involved? How did you know you had them?

KERSCHBAUM: I'm not trying to draw them in a disturbing fashion. I admit I get a kick out of it when people tell me that the characters freak them out a bit. But I also hear the opposite. I've had women at SPX tell me they thought Petey and Pussy were cute! Something about their bald heads... Fact is, I find peoples' impressions are really diverse and often insightful. They'll point out some very specific aspect of a drawing and describe it in a way I'd never seen before. It's fascinating!

I didn't do any formal character design. I just started writing gags with them. Pussy briefly looked a little more like how I draw myself but otherwise the look of the characters came pretty quick. Over the years, I've tried to make their animal parts a little more anatomically correct -- especially Pussy. I wanted him to be more catlike. Petey's a bit of a sausage. Still it's a challenge sometimes getting the head on in a believable position.

SPURGEON: A perhaps more specific question about design: your characters don't have the same conceptual mix of human and animal elements -- some of your animals are animals, while Bernie is a bit less of a human head-wise than Petey and Pussy. Should we read anything into that, or is that just an accidental byproduct of visual design?

KERSCHBAUM: Bernie is actually supposed to be exactly the same head-wise as Petey and Pussy. I suppose I've taken a little more leeway with Bernie. He has a very beaky nose. But I intended him to be just another balding guy. Maybe just a little older looking than Petey and Pussy.

SPURGEON: Why not show the bartender?

KERSCHBAUM: I haven't decided.

SPURGEON: How much are you interested in presenting or suggesting some sort of theme through these characters? Because of the human element in them, it would be pretty easy to see, say, their frustration and inability to do stuff as reflective as some of some hapless human being's ability to achieve much of anything. On the other hand, that even sounds silly just saying it out loud. Do you want people to relate to the characters on some level that bringing forward some idea is possible, or is that just way too much to ask of this kind of comedic effort?

KERSCHBAUM: It's not a motivating factor. I think it's a by-product of the writing but it's a blessing if readers pick up on it and relate to it in some way. It adds depth (to both the characters and the story) and it's also another layer to build humor on.

imageSPURGEON: Is there anything we should take away from the fact that different people hear and see the leads differently? Is that something that you gave any thought at all?

KERSCHBAUM: From the very inception of the characters, I've given a lot of thought to this and I'm still making it up as I go along. Initially, no one was going to react to or take notice of Petey and Pussy's unique qualities. I wasn't going to acknowledge it at all in the writing. Petey and Pussy, themselves, don't ever mention it directly. Originally, I made the Old Lady a bit loopy in order to explain why she doesn't notice or make note of it. But, then, I'd think of a gag that broke one "rule" or another and I'd opt for the gag. So I'm purposefully leaving it vague to a degree -- keeping the options open. I like the idea that they just are what they are.

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SPURGEON: Settle a bet between a friend and me: the mouse's original messages to Pussy are assembled from his own pieces of shit, right?

KERSCHBAUM: Mouse turds. (Anyone that doesn't get this has never had a mouse in their house). What did the loser think it was?

SPURGEON: At this point, I honestly can't remember. You know, generally I like your lettering. Is that style specific to this project, or is that just an overall, natural style? How exacting are you in terms of paying attention to that element of craft?

KERSCHBAUM: Thank you. It is basically a very neat version of the way I normally print. But I have to admit that I dislike doing the lettering. I want it to look good though and do try. It usually starts out neat and gets increasingly worse as I go on. It takes a lot of cleaning up, straightening, spacing, etc. both on the paper as well as on the computer once the page is scanned.

SPURGEON: What is it about humor -- your humor, or humor in general -- that adding a terrifying element to it increases the intensity of the humor and doesn't tend to increase the severity of the horror. Or maybe you disagree with me. Everyone I know that knows your work considers you a humor cartoonist not a horror cartoonist, and I wondered if you could explain to me why that picture is the takeaway instead of the opposite one.

KERSCHBAUM: I don't have an exact answer for this. I do think that there is a strong relationship between a good scare and a good laugh - like how a little nervous giggle often follows a good fright. (I'm sure there must be research on this.) For some reason, I think, they just play off each other well. The funny parts put you at ease -- draw you in, relax you and the shocking bits snap you back to attention (or push you away in disgust, I guess). But most of the "horror" in my comics is a kind of slapstick horror. I like the idea of trying to get the reader to look closer and laugh despite their better sense telling them to look away and scream. It creates a tension -- a tension that I then try to break with a laugh -- or a poke in the eye.

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SPURGEON: One thing I find interesting about your work is that it's so cruel, and yet all of this is played for comedy. Is that a natural place for you to go or do you tweak certain scenes for a more or perhaps less visceral effect.

KERSCHBAUM: I think I have a natural affinity for this type of humor. Monty Python used it a lot: that Pekinpah "Salad Days" bit or the scene with the Black Knight in Holy Grail. Looney Tunes are full of violence-driven humor. Those things cracked me up as a kid. Later, I was fond of the comics of Charles Addams, Gahan Wilson and Edward Gorey.

I want to be careful not to make it a one note affair. It's important that readers have some sympathy -- or even empathy -- for the characters so every once in a while I try to leave some of their dignity intact.

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SPURGEON: You use a static frame a lot of the time, by which I mean the panel borders mark off an area and then you get a page or more of people moving into or back out of that established focus -- as opposed to following the figures, which you also do at times. What about that static effect appeals to you that you use it so frequently?

KERSCHBAUM: First, there's the matter of practicality. With only so much time to indulge making comics, I sometimes need to be frugal. Using a static frame or repeating panel helps me save some drawing time by allowing me to use the same basic pencil sketch repeatedly. I try to use this repetition to my advantage, however. For example, it's an easy way to control the pacing and timing. Plus, these kinds of pages are well suited for some of the more subtle humor in the book. There are always small changes in each drawing, sometimes even something integral to the story.

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SPURGEON: Tell me about the map project the lovely, insanely-detailed poster you made for it. How did you get that gig? How much work went into it? Are you satisfied with the final product -- are they? Is there anything that you tried to do or wanted to do with it that just didn't work out?

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KERSCHBAUM: A few years ago I worked on an illustration for Nickelodeon. It was a maze based on the interior of an art museum. I had done a few small illustration projects -- mostly technical stuff -- for the Met and thought maybe they would be interested in doing something similar. So I brought a copy of the Nick maze to Masha Turchinsky at the Education Department. She had just begun the redesign of their Family Guide and liked the idea of incorporating some fun activity like that into it. So I proposed this seek and find puzzle. I tried to base it on the real layout of the Museum (minus most of the walls). I honestly thought it would take a year or maybe a year and a half, tops. I went to the Museum and took a lot of photos concentrating on one section at a time. For sections that were closed for renovation or redesign, I worked from schematics and photos of architectural models or I just improvised. Anyway, it took much longer than anticipated, nearly four years. But in all fairness to myself, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing! Still, I'm happy with the outcome. The Met was great to work for -- patient and encouraging. They indulged most of my whims. From what I can tell, they're pleased as well. I think they have ambitious plans for an online version which I'm anxious to see! It's also my understanding it will soon be available in the gift shop as a jigsaw puzzle -- in time for Christmas, I'm sure!

SPURGEON: What has feedback been like on that project? Do you pay a great deal of attention to what you hear back from people? I know that some cartoonists compare making comics to performing on a stage where no one in the audience is allowed to clap or laugh.

KERSCHBAUM: Everyone has been really nice, very flattering. A lot of the friends and clients I sent a copy to respond, "It's crazy!" and then, "Where can I get a bigger one that I can frame?" It's nice to hear because one of my main goals was to do a drawing that could withstand repeated viewings. I wanted to create a puzzle that, like the Museum itself, was a fun place to get lost in again and again. So it's gratifying to me that someone wants to frame it and display it in their own home.

Generally, I like getting feedback. I believe there is much to learn about what I do and how others view it by listening to their opinions and reading reviews. Since comics and illustration are all about communication, I find it helpful to know what the person I'm talking to is hearing. All feedback is not equal but sometimes the best stuff comes from the most unexpected places. Ultimately, I get to decide how much of what I hear or read affects my work, so I don't see the downside of taking it all in.

SPURGEON: When I read people writing about your work or hear people talking about it, one of the things they tend to do is underline how idiosyncratic it is. Do you agree with that to the degree it's argued? Are there artists out there with whom you feel common cause or a certain level of sympathy?

KERSCHBAUM: I've heard it described that way many times but it's hard for me to understand it. If anything, to my eye, my cartooning seems old-fashioned, rather traditional. It's not my motivation to experiment with the form or push stylistic envelopes. I admit that lately, I've grown cautiously curious about where that perception originates. My best guess so far is that it's a reflection of the fact that so many of my creative influences come from outside the world of traditional comic books. But that's just a guess. If I could step outside of my shoes and see it how others see it, I probably would even though it might be one of those instances where ignorance is bliss. Regardless, I consider it a compliment. I'm glad I'm doing it different somehow. If you're not doing it different, what's the point?

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SPURGEON: Is drawing pleasurable for you, the mechanics of it? I ask because even though a lot of Petey & Pussy traffics in characters operating in a limited foreground, you'll occasionally have panels or page of really meticulous drawing. You've also had some fairly involved-looking projects over the year both within comics, like some of the drawing in Wiggly Reader and without.

KERSCHBAUM: It depends on what I'm drawing. Again, with Petey & Pussy and a lot of my comics I have to balance the time I have to work on it with how complicated the approach is. Some stories or scenes demand a certain approach. But I'm not a natural draughtsman. I have a methodical drawing process. I have a tendency to draw lots of details. I think it's early yet, but I'm leaning towards trying a different approach for my next project. I'm hoping my next comic book will look a little different.

SPURGEON: You spoke to TCJ about making panoramas when you were a kid: was that MAD's influence or children's book illustration? Where did that come from, do you think? You've mentioned you really enjoy that kind of art.

KERSCHBAUM: I'm sure MAD had a significant influence on the "humor" I was putting into these drawings. The panorama aspect was nothing more than my being young and excited by the discovery that you could butt two (and then more!) pieces of paper together and make this huge seamless canvas. I'd start drawing and when I ran out of paper, I'd just add more! The possibilities were endless!

SPURGEON: Your suggestion to [TCJ interviewer] Rob Clough that you derived a certain feeling of schadenfrude from the cruelty visited upon your character interested me. Is that really a motivating force? In a more general sense, even, do you wish for your comics to engender a certain feeling or response from you?

KERSCHBAUM: Hmmm, I'm not sure. I think what I was trying to say is that I'm just naturally amused by a certain style of cruel humor. I think a lot of people are and that a lot of successful comedy is mined from the misfortune of others. I'm not trying to make any scientifically pertinent observations about society or anything in these comics -- just jokes. I think it's natural to write to your own tastes. In the end, a few of the gags I write put a smile on my face every time I re-read them -- others wear thin more quickly.

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SPURGEON: What if anything did your failed strip proposals teach you? Looking back on them now, do you feel there's still something of value there, or is it more like you dodged a bullet by not having to work on either one every day for 15 years.

KERSCHBAUM: Even though I was working at a syndicate at the time, I learned a lot about how they functioned (and didn't) from a perspective I never would have gotten from my desk job. Luckily, I've forgotten all about that. In fact, I'd still like to do a Cartoon Boy strip. I enjoyed writing and drawing them some 15 years ago and I think, had I been given the opportunity, I would have done it as a strip even though I was never 100% sure I could swing it. I know for a fact it's really hard! It's probably the hardest job in cartooning -- one a day, every day, forever. But even with the papers and syndicates in a mess, it's one of the things I'm considering doing again. I've been in touch with folks at United Features, King and WPWG about it, briefly. I'm looking forward to meeting with them and getting their take on whether it would be worth the effort.

SPURGEON: Is that something to which you'd like to return? What remaining ambitions do you when it comes to the comics portion of your career? How about the career overall?

KERSCHBAUM: Well overall, I'll continue to take whatever illo work comes my way. I'm hopeful that the Met poster might provide some unexpected opportunities. But when the economy is bad, my experience has been, that illustration budgets are one of the first to get cut. So I suspect things will get tough for a while. On the bright side, that might allow me to tackle some of the personal projects that sat on the back burner while I finished the poster.

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SPURGEON: Is there something about working for Nickelodeon Magazine that those of us not directly involved in that process don't see? For instance, I have the sense there's some close editing involved, although that's just a hunch.

KERSCHBAUM: Nick Mag is a great client and I'm grateful for the illustration work they send my way. They're the kind of client that wants and encourages you to pitch in ideas but they're not shy about telling you which ones they're not interested in. There's an open and free exchange of ideas that's always friendly and productive but also business-like -- it's how it should be. There's one slight difference for me between illustrating an editorial feature for them and submitting a comic for the comic strip section. In both cases there is an open exchange of ideas and suggestions but with the illustration, ultimately, I do whatever the art director and editors ask me to do. With comics submissions, I reserve some final say for myself. For example, if the editors think a gag doesn't work, I'll try to re-write it. If they offer an alternative, I consider it but don't feel like I have to use it. If we can't find a solution that we both like – it's no big deal. Maybe that strip is just not a good one for Nick and we just move onto the next one.

SPURGEON: Did you end up attending SPX again? What was that experience like? How do you feel that show has changed since you first started going?

KERSCHBAUM: I attended SPX in 2008 for the first time in a few years. It's always a fun show and a great opportunity to see friends. This was my first show at the new venue which, despite lacking the homeyness of the old place, was an improvement, if for no other reason than all the exhibitors are in one big room. Maybe it was because I hadn't been in a while but the biggest difference for me was I felt like there was a huge crew of young talented people I hadnever have heard of before but should have. It was an encouraging scene. On the flip side, many people I think of as SPX regulars -- Hart, Little, Bertozzi, Fingerman and Kreider were absent. I suspect a lot of the NY-based cartoonists gravitate toward MoCCA since, it's not only a great show, it's also right in their backyard. I hope their new venue will mean I'll be able to get a table again this year. These shows are fun. They're exhausting physically and mentally, but also rewarding in ways both personal and professional.

SPURGEON: What's the next thing?

KERSCHBAUM: Well, as I mentioned earlier, I've got some catch up to do with some things I let slide while working on the Met poster - menial things like updating my illustration website, for example. While I'm tackling stuff like that, I'm considering some other long-term projects. Re-submitting Cartoon Boy for syndication is one. I have a children's picture book in mind -- something I've always wanted to do -- that just needs a little fleshing out and shopping around. I would love an opportunity to work on my "dream project." It's an all-ages, mystery/adventure graphic novel. It's got a great lead character -- a kid detective with a very cool secret -- and a story that puts a neat spin on the genre. It's a worthwhile mystery featuring an unusual and cunning sleuth. If nothing else, I'm considering this as a DIY weekly web feature. But it all depends on whether Petey & Pussy finds its audience. It's recently been suggested to me that its target audience is not your typical comic book reader. I think that may be true but I'm still optimistic.

And if there's any demand for it, I'd love to keep working with those characters; I have a few more Petey & Pussy stories to tell.

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* Petey & Pussy, John Kerschbaum, Fantagraphics, hardcover, 128 pages, 9781560979791 (ISBN13), December 2008, $19.99.

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* cover to Petey & Pussy
* a Wiggly Reader cover
* a bunch of stuff from Petey & Pussy
* two from that project for The Met
* one more from P&P
* a Cartoon Boy tryout strip
* from a Nick Mag cartoon
* an illustration

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