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An Interview With Grady Klein
posted April 30, 2006
 

imageI knew very little about Grady Klein going into our interview. The Berkeley-born artist behind the challenging, odd, and lovely-looking The Lost Colony Book 1: The Snodgrass Conspiracy -- the first volume of which has to be the biggest mystery in First Second's initial launch -- already has the slightly insecure yet fully-invested conversational patter of an experienced cartoonist. The former philosophy major at the University of Chicago, already under contract for a few books in this series, hopes to complete enough books for his creation to stand comfortably, cover to cover, with one of the great album series he devoured as a child. The Lost Colony's first effort introduces audiences to Klein's unique approach to color and layout, his eye for satire through slowly unfolding narrative, and dozens of semi-recognizable elements from the darker corners of American history. It's extremely rare that a cartoonist shows up working this much differently than everyone else but still communicates as a fully realized comics talent. If Klein's book can find its audience, we'll know that First Second's launch has been a successful one.

TOM SPURGEON: Grady, I don't know anything about your background. I'm not sure anyone does. [Klein laughs] What do we need to know about you?

GRADY KLEIN: Oh boy...

SPURGEON: Did you study art somewhere?

KLEIN: No, I didn't. I was a philosophy major. I went to the University of Chicago and studied philosophy. I went there to get a liberal arts education, with as much breadth as possible. I counted up my credits and realized that philosophy was the most sensible way to go. I drew all through college. I drew for the student newspaper.

SPURGEON: I know Jessica Abel and Ivan Brunetti went to the University of Chicago. Were you there when they were?

KLEIN: I'm a little younger than both Jessica and Ivan. I've never met Ivan, but I've been fortunate enough to meet Jessica.

SPURGEON: But you kept interested in drawing while in school?

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KLEIN: I studied philosophy and drew the whole time. I was an inveterate scribbler sort. The sort of "cartoon biography" things I think are important is my grandparents are friends with Arnold Roth. Some people don't know who he is because he's made his living doing cartoon illustration. But in my estimation he's one of the best of his generation and is actually still drawing -- his generation being people who came of age during the '50s. He was colleagues with the early MAD Magazine guys, and went off to work for Punch for several years. His style is very British-American in a lot of ways. Absolutely brilliant illustrator. Knowing him and having brief meetings that offered me some tutelage was incredibly helpful as I was growing up.

I grew up in Berkeley, California. My mom is an artist, and my dad is a scientist. I went to school to get a liberal arts education. I think it's safe to say I always wanted to be a cartoonist. And had I grown up 30 years earlier, I think it would have been likely I might have pursued a career in editorial cartooning. But I went to some conferences and met some editorial cartoonists, all of whom I very much admire and like, but the bottom has dropped out of the newspaper industry. For some reason I found myself drawn to doing longer form stuff. Stuff that wasn't political in nature. I think there were a lot of reasons for that that I shouldn't go into now.

I grew up as a fanatic Asterix reader. A lover of Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes. I wasn't so much a comic collector, but I had friends that were that translated a lot of that stuff for me in their re-tellings of it, which I've felt very fortunate for. The animation connection came a little later. After I graduated college I was an intern at The Nation magazine in New York City. I actually had a cartoon published there, which was fun. I got to meet Ed Sorel while I was there. Ed does New Yorker covers and also editorial cartoons for the Nation and stuff. Ed is another person I feel incredibly highly of in terms of his place in editorial cartooning history.

SPURGEON: If nothing else, you are the classiest name dropper ever. [laughter]

KLEIN: I really got lucky. I have to say, I've known Arnold much more closely, but I met Ed probably three or four times. I bugged him and went over to his house. The things that he said to me in those meetings were fantastically helpful. I couldn't guarantee he would know who I was now. But certainly the experience of meeting someone of that stature was extraordinarily fortunate.

SPURGEON: Do you means in terms of drawing itself, or problem-solving on the page, or... ?

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KLEIN: The one phrase that Ed Sorel gave me is that cartooning is all about gesture. It's visible in his work, but I think that very much stuck, somehow. I think it's very important that cartoonists use the physical gesture. I guess it sounds really obvious now. But when he said it, it sounded really important. I was struggling a lot at that time -- struggling might be the wrong word -- but I was really attracted to much more freeform illustration style than what is exhibited in The Lost Colony. I was really in love with the work with Ronald Searle. And I really admired Sorel's work. He does all of his illustrations straight in ink on the page. He throws them out when they're not working, but then he'll go back to another one. He uses really thin paper so he can go over them. I also couldn't say enough about my love for Ralph Steadman. Working through those elements of my drawing during that period, it was really helpful to meet him. He put me in touch with R.O. Blechman, who was one of the innovators of the squiggly line style. The linework in his work is similar to that of [Jean-Jacques] Sempe, although Bob isn't so much an illustrator as an animator. He ran an animation in midtown Manhattan called the Ink Tank. They made their money over the years doing ad work for all kinds of clients, an incredible list of people. They did some ads that people might have seen over the years, including one that was really fun where a caveman puts a straw down a hole and drinks Perrier. I remember when I saw that I recognized it.

So I spent a year at the Ink Tank being the studio gofer, studio assistant, messenger person, kind of absorbing traditional animation technique and understanding. That was another experience that I was incredibly luck for. Obviously I didn't get paid much. But I loved walking around the city drawing people, which was a lot of what I had to do. I never had any complaints about that, which I think was rather strange. Being around animation in that regard began for me was about six or seven years after that I focused my energies mostly on animation and design work.

After I left that job I moved down to Princeton and got a job at Princeton University Press, a job that eventually became a design job doing book jackets and some cartoon illustration work. That was a good job, because it was a quiet job that allowed me to develop a professional portfolio and also allowed me to pursue animation in all different forms. That culminated in teaching some animation courses at Princeton. It culminated for me in the production of the best short I ever made, this move called The Dust Bunny, a movie about a dust bunny who lives under the coach, and a hyper clean, obsessively clean bear who tries to vacuum him up.

The other thing that's worth noting in that period of my own career is that I had discovered that I was interested in learning how to use the computer for artwork. I spent a lot of energy learning how to draw in pen and ink. But I wasn't really satisfied with what I was producing. I have a great love as I mentioned for anarchic, spontaneous drawing styles other people do so well. But I never found it was working for me. I spent the time I was at Princeton University Press learning how to draw, all the programs, including some animation programs I don't use for my Lost Colony work. That has very much informed the way that I work, which I think is probably pretty unusual. I draw on the computer straight in Photoshop. It's not that unusual, but I'm definitely in that camp. One reason I did that originally was the observation that everything was going into the computer anyway. So it seemed to make the most sense. To have the most control over what came out the other end, I had to learn those tools.

I think that's a good description of who I am.

SPURGEON: The follow-up question would be how you went from there to doing a book like Lost Colony. Where did the book come from?

KLEIN: It probably came in two ways. One was in conversation with an editor friend of mine while he was at the Press. I did some covers for him, famous legal scholar people. We did a couple of projects together, and enjoyed working together. This was a fellow named Thomas LeBien. Thomas then moved off and got a job at FSG in Manhattan. He has his finger on the pulse of the book world. It was apparent to him that graphic novels were big -- it could be apparent to anyone who walks in a bookstore, looking at the shelves of manga -- Thomas has an expressed interest as a publisher of these things, and is doing several non-fiction work. I had done a pamphlet that I shared with him, this thing called "After Babel" about what happens to our words when we're doing with him. Thomas and I had stayed in touch. And he basically planted this seed that I should think about doing something like that, a graphic novel-type thing.

As I mentioned this was something very near to my heart. When I finished college, I did my junior project as a big comic book thing. I had done a strip in college. Then I focused on silent storytelling with animation. The idea of doing a project that was back to characters speaking was very intriguing to me. I had always loved Asterix so much that the idea of doing something in that tradition with an historical resonance of some sort was immediately appealing to me. Thomas is also an American history editor, and he's someone with whom that conversation was a natural. From there I began writing gobs and gobs of background story, and scenarios of this sort and that, creatiing a series of pages to test the idea, push it through, and test the characters.

A while after that seed was planted, Thomas had a meeting with Mark Siegel. Mark was out there looking for new talent and people interested in this stuff -- Thomas and Mark know each other, mostly through Thomas' instigation of discussion on graphic novels. Thomas said, "It sounds like what you're interested in is what my friend is doing here." Basically, after that it's history. Mark called me up and wanted to meet about it, and really loved the project. He being French -- he's American now, but he grew up in France -- knew the impact of Asterix comics in Europe, which is much more significant than here. So my tagline was "An Asterix for America." I think that was appealing to him for many reasons. That's sort of how it got launched.

SPURGEON: It seems that Lost Colony falls into a familiar literary construct of being a microcosm of America and American appetites -- a stage where different ideas can be presented and satirized. What made you want to do that kind of explication of American ideas and ideals?

KLEIN: I think the answer to that is so big I couldn't give an answer that would feel satisfactory to me. I think it in part grows out of a love for satire generally. One early description of the project was "De Toqueville Meets The Simpsons" taking something that is a story set in a smaller place with broader resonances, like Springfield, but using it to explore historical elements a lot of people are ignorant of or understand it a different way than it happened. It can be part of a broader conversation I think is important. Part of it was definitely a personal interest in learning more about American history and discovering the more I learned the more fascinated, horrified, delighted and disgusted I was. There's so much that's so fantastically paradoxical and outrageous in our national history that I find in a real basic way the ideas are exciting to me.

SPURGEON: Can you describe an idea you found particularly surprising? There's a cynicism, a certainty that we know all of this stuff now, so I wonder what would genuinely surprise you.

KLEIN: That's a good question. This is totally unrelated, and it's for a later book so I'll try to think of another while I give you this one, but I just learned Joseph Smith's dad lost his shirt in an effort to grow ginseng to export to China. [Spurgeon laughs] You laugh because it's totally outrageous. How delightful, how amazing.

I never get to do enough reading for these things because I have to write so much and draw so much. But that's the current example du jour. One of the things worth mentioning in the context of book one is I made the decision to set this project in the mid-19th century. There was a sort of surprise that I discovered in reading history of that time in that there was a lot of resonance between that period and our own, going back 150 years rather than 250. One thing I think we do with history is we tend to categorize it.

That's a silly comment.

SPURGEON: What is it that you feel resonates? Similar issues? Similar economic models?

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KLEIN: I think it's all of the above. I think it's very much slavery. Over the years as I've read, that's what I was trying to say when I say we try to categorize things in a way that is unhelpful. I think slavery is the perfect example.

Here's something that was surprising, I finally came up with it. When people in the pre-Civil War South took a train north they were offended often when they crossed what would be the Mason Dixon line into Northern parts, they were often offended because the laws in the North said no African-Americans were allowed in the train cars as the whites. So in effect, segregation at that time was more severe in the North. That kind of gives me pause. We tend to categorize slavery as a Southern thing that's over now. But the more I did research the more I found overlaps in that particular area in so many different facets of peoples' lives and so many different facets of the economy, in a way I think is very parallel to contemporary issues of poeple getting exploited for cheap labor now. I remember the moment -- I don't remember if it was a New Yorker aritcle or not -- when I read about orange pickers in Florida living under slavery conditions right now. It's not a hugely obvious thing, but it's not a politically volatile thing as it doesn't seem like much is being done about it. But the idea I'm drinking my orange juice thinking it's cheap because of advancement in technology, when in fact people are getting jerked around and mistreated...

I kind of went out of control in that description, I think.

SPURGEON: How do you write? How do you go from writing to layout?

KLEIN: I think the question you sent me about the editing process works in here, too.

I write as much as possible. I write a treatment, something akin to a screenplay or a play-play. Scenes, and outlines, and act structure are as tight as possible. I share that work with Mark and we cut it up and edit it as thoroughly as possible. During that time I do some character sketches and some developmental doodling ideas. Then at the time of putting the project to the page, it's very crucial to me that we make -- or I make -- a full rough draft of the whole book, in gray, with all of the text set in this draft version. This will hopefully be the same as the final version except where it can be made better in the final version. I think what I'm trying to say about that part of the process is I try to work as much like the story departments at Pixar or the original Disney story department.

In other words, I work in a storyboard fashion. I want to try out as many ideas and start pasting them into a layout program to test the flow of the story and see if the whole thing reads. That involves many early stabs at layout. So that as I'm approaching a particular page, I guess I sit there with this text that's going to go on the page, and this knowledge in the back of my head of what needs to happen in the several pages around it and in the scene. I'm really learning how to do this better I think, but I have the whole scene open as I try to chart the flow as I'm working on it. That might be ten spreads or whatever. Try and figure out what's at the heart of each page as I draw. But I always keep my mind open as to camera angles, if that's the right word. Certainly, big/little, big/little... Each panel giving a pleasing contrast in terms of size with what happens around it.

I think part of what goes on in that period in the process is what text I've written in the storywriting process is always subject to cutting. I write lots and lots of things that just don't make their way in because they don't fit or didn't end up coming out of the character's mouth right at that time. I don't think as I describe this that I'm giving you any insight as to what makes my particular pages what they are in terms of page layout. I think that basically what that part of it involves is really trying to get at the flow of the story, and express it with the panel sizes. And after that, I think it's basically organic, meaning that it kind of happens the way it does because I'm the one drawing it maybe.

Again, I don't think I've given you a particularly satisfying answer.

SPURGEON: Are you in contact with Mark later on in the creative process?

KLEIN: Yeah. Typically I like to share with Mark at the storywriting stage, I think with both books we went through two conversations at that point. I shoed him a first draft and a second draft, and then we both agree that we're ready to move on. That's not to say I didn't write more, but it was clear to me I was at a point in the writing I couldn't see the deficiencies and had to share it with him. I get too close to it. Then during the storyboarding part of the process I've typically met with Mark three times per book, after I finished a third of each book. At that point, I have a couple week's worth of changes to put in. He's an incredible editor. The point I want to be sure to make is how lucky I am to be working with him. He's got an incredible eye as an artist, a fantastic eye for storytelling continuity. I really, really am lucky for that. I wanted the project to be as collaborative as possible.

The bulk of his editorial work goes on until I'm done with the full rough draft, the full final rough draft. And then I've been showing him every week as I do final work, and even then he has notes here and there.

SPURGEON: How severe are his comments? Does he ask you to re-structure pages?

KLEIN: Oh, yeah. This doesn't work, I don't know why it doesn't work. Re-structure a page, this voice doesn't sound right... Pepe Wong has this thing where he says "Madre Dios" when something goes wrong. I wrote a scene where he says it 20 times in the scene and I'm totally oblivious because I love it when he says that. Mark notices that. I want it to be as savage as possible. He's a very congenial person, so "savage" is the wrong word, but I really think having somebody else's eye on it, pushing as hard as possible, I think I'm incredibly lucky for that. Particularly someone who reads as closely, attentively and affectionately because he loves the medium so much, it's really valuable. But yeah, changes to a whole scene to a character that's really not working, which involves me going back and ripping 20 pages apart that character appeared in, trying to restructure them so the character is thought through.

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SPURGEON: Something I think will leap out at many people when reading your book is the layered backgrounds, a look that people might be more familiar with in animation. How did you develop that look?

KLEIN: One thing that was explicit is I wanted to use black thoughtfully. I wanted it basically to be a foreground element. The characters and any items that are in the story and relevant are done in black, while everything else is in color layers.

SPURGEON: That puts a lot of pressure on the way you're staging the "actors."

KLEIN: Yeah. In my opinion, they're character-driven stories. The foreground story is of vital, vital importance. The gestures of each character in every panel, the thought of each character in every panel, that's where the magic happens in comics. That's definitely what I've strived to achieve. Once I had decided that, I keep an eye towards woodcut kind of artwork -- which I'd like to study more, and I'm trying to develop my work -- ways to make the shapes work and suggest detail that complement all of the foreground elements and characters and whatnot, but also look appealing and beautiful. And that I can do in a day so I can stay on schedule. [laughs]

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SPURGEON: One of the things I wanted to ask you about is your use of color. You really vary the color on the page, you shift the background colors -- sometimes it seems to be connected by theme, sometimes flashback, and sometimes it seems to be just an attractive element on the page. Can you talk in general terms about your approach to color?

KLEIN: From a digital art perspective, one thing that's worth noting is that I've tried to build the colors as black-free as possible so that the colors are very vibrant, and contrast strongly with the blacks on the page. As all cartoonists know, black looks so beautiful. So I've tried to preserve that just in the way I've built the palette.

There are several elements in book one which you've mentioned -- thematic elements, flashback elements, there's also when someone's brians are scrambled with Pepe's potion, the colors will scramble around in the panel. I think that my experience as a designer informs the process of building the way each page looks. There could have been a way to make the thematic elements of color use more punchy had I desaturated a lot of the other color use. If you look at any page in the book, it's really lively and colorful. If I had decided to push the palette back so that it was much more subtle on most pages, then the scrambling of the colors when they had the potion could have been made to pop out at you.

I felt color was a very important part of the story and the world, and so I resisted that for a number of reasons. When I actually sit down to draw it, I look for something that's pleasing, but more important than that is the way the colors would relate to other elements, other parts of the story. The most complete answer I feel like I could give is, "Yeah, I'm definitely trying to use the color as thoughtfully and thematically as possible, but that's not really an answer.

SPURGEON: What are your expectations for the book? How do you hope it hits people? It's out any day now... Have you had any reviews yet?

KLEIN: I've only heard one review, from Booklist. It was very positive, which I was happy for. I haven't heard anything else, and of course the book goes out on May 2. I guess they want the real media reviews. I feel so incredibly fortunate, that the idea of expecting so many people to read it, I'm so thrilled about that. I spent a lot of time and effort in the project to take some very dark material -- and it continues through the other books in the series -- real horrible stuff in our nation's history and put it in this package where it's part of this big mix of different characters and everything. These very bright, appealing characters -- this one review I've read said the world was "candy coated" which in some ways I think is appropriate.

The most basic thing is this thrill of having other people read thing thing; it's awesome. I consider a work of this sort a collaboration between my efforts and the imagination of the person reading it. So I guess I would be most gratified if people reacted to it in many different ways as a reflection of the many different elements I managed to put in.

Is that a good answer?

SPURGEON: That's a great answer. To be honest, I was wondering if you had thought about that at all. Sometimes when you work on a book for that long, you forget that it's actually coming out.

KLEIN: I spent the early part of the winter more sort of scared feeling. It's amazing and terrifying. One thing that's terrifying is how much media there is in this world. How saturated everything is, and to think of my thing going out and being just one little speck in a great sea. But on the other hand that's absurd, because of all the fortunate places it's being published. They're sending it all over the country. They're talking with foreign publishers. I'm incredibly grateful for that. The one thing I hope for is that people sit down and read it and give it their effort. I want it to be easy to read, obviously, but I feel honestly very thrilled by that simple fact. Single other individuals will sit down and read this and give their imaginative time to it. That's just awesome. In terms of my hopes for the future, I want to continue to make these.

SPURGEON: Ideally where would you like to go with the Lost Colony projects?

KLEIN: Ideally I want to do ten, then take a breather. That's my ideal.

SPURGEON: That's very Asterix-like.

KLEIN: This first contract is for three, and the thematic material for the three, it's certainly brimming over. There's plenty of material. I'm always struck with other elements of different stories and characters that would fit into this world. One of the things it's got going for it is that it is so character driven. That's really what excites me. That's one reason I feel I could do that is that it feels like I'm channeling these characters. I can't take credit for stuff they say. They just say it. They exist out there somewhere, and I feel like I can sit down and hear them in certain circumstances.

Very early on in this conversation, you asked for the reasons I chose to do this smallish island sort of thing, and one of the reasons for that is the enormous potential for telling different sorts of stories depending on who comes to the island. You really don't need more than 30 characters to have a universe of stories to tell. It involves treating the characters with dignity and humor, and trying to listen to them. In a way that's absurd because they don't exist. But in a way when I do research I read about all kinds of people and amazing histories and trying to embed those into the characters. It's a very intriguing project for me.

Grady Klein's The Lost Colony Volume One (First Second, 128 pages, 1596430974, $14.95) is available from all book and comics sellers everywhere.

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