Home > CR Interviews
A Short Interview with Kevin Huizenga
posted March 30, 2004
Kevin Huizenga is one of comics' most genuine and interesting talents. He stands as good a chance as anyone working today of being the next alternative comics superstar. Even those who believe Huizenga's entire artistic evolution has exuded an air of inevitability must admit the cartoonist's learning curve has accelerated the last two years. Following a profile in this magazine for the sweetly good-natured, largely autobiographical and often uniquely formally ambitious mini-comics work in his omnibus title Supermonster
, Huizenga pulled off a string of singularly impressive short stories. "Sunset" in the 14th issue of Supermonster
mixed breezy scientific lecture with idiosyncratic observations about everyday life, paced in a wonderful, measured manner that has come to be a calling card. "Green Tea" in the first issue of the Sparkplug Graphics anthology Orchid
, managed to be at once unsettling, dryly humorous and subtly complex. The adaptation of Le Fanu's Victorian Horror classic also showed hints of a clever approach to bringing the meaning of older work across the ages, a mix of contemporary visual motifs and interlocking narration that would come to full fruition in the urban fable "28th Street," the middle of three interlocking stories in the first Drawn & Quarterly Showcase
Kevin Huizenga was born in 1977 and spent his early years in that comparably stark and forgotten portion of the United Sates just south of Chicago - an adopted suburb of the City of Big Shoulders that had a great deal more in common with small town life stretching from Fort Wayne to Des Moines. Many of his early comics featured his spiritually generous and insightful views on that portion of America, communicated through autobiography. Those works touched obliquely on a religious orientation that has yet to be examined directly in the artist's comics. With Ted May, Dan Zettwoch and Warren Craghead, Huizenga is one of the featured artists of the USS Catastrophe web site, perhaps the top location for alternative comics readers on the Internet. The site features several original works and sneak previews by the cartoonists, including Huizenga, and hosts the first of a new generation of on-line mini-comics stores.
TOM SPURGEON: Do people assume your character Glenn Ganges is a stand-in for you?
[laughs] Yeah, all the time.
SPURGEON: I'm guessing there is no wife and kid?
You're asking if I have a child? No, there's no wife and child.
SPURGEON: Is that the kind of thing that people assume?
People think Glenn Ganges is me and that's fine, whatever. I probably encourage it a little bit. But I try to undercut it a little bit, too. I do tend to wear those softball shirts a lot, but less and less now that I draw Glenn Ganges that way. I need to find a different costume.
SPURGEON: One thing that's interesting about your last few projects is that you play around with narration. In the
Drawn and Quarterly Showcase stories sometimes there's a narrator, sometimes there isn't. Sometimes Glenn tells the story, sometimes not. How do you decide on what approach to take with your narration?
Writing the Showcase
story was really difficult. I think it's a pretty mixed bag. It's the result of wanting to cram all these ideas into the story, and wanting to do it in 40 pages, and trying to see how I could make that work. Sometimes I would have a narrator talking about starlings, or whatever, and sometimes I would have Glenn reading from a newspaper-that's pretty much the result of trying to cram a lot of ideas in there. I like writers who put non-fiction elements in their fiction.
SPURGEON: Any in particular?
One writer who I was interested in around that time was W.G. Sebald. His books are a weird hybrid of essays and fiction and non-fiction and photographs. I got really interested in that kind of mixing of things. I think I approached the stories a lot of times as a chance to throw a bunch of ideas, or a bunch - not really ideas as much as things that suggest ideas - into the air and see how they reflect off each other. The actual plot, the storyline-I'm not sure about how to handle that yet. I don't think it's what drives the stories as much.
SPURGEON: One idea that's in
Gloriana and all of your work, really, is a clash between religion and science, or mystery and explanation. Is that a fair thing to bring out of your work?
Yeah. That's such a fundamental thing it's hard to put it into words, other than to say that most of what I've drawn about is a reflection of what I read about, everything from Hammond's Nature Atlas of America
, to trying to read through philosophy, theology, that kind of stuff. And it's all part of the same big world, so it all kind of gets mixed up in there.
SPURGEON: Is it a reflection of your own investigation or doubts about these issues, or is it that you like the clash of ideas as ferment for your stories?
The work of other artists that I'm interested in is usually not the kind of stuff that has a hard and fast point of view. I like those tensions left in the air. I like the idea of writing a story that reinforces the prejudices of whoever reads it, no matter who they are. I don't think my stories do that, but it's something I've been thinking about lately. The idea that you can read a story about ideas, and you would come away with not necessarily your mind changed, but you might come away just realizing it's more complicated than you first thought. That's something I associate with Chekhov. If I were to write essays or write comics as essays, I would examine ideas and try to come to some conclusion, but putting them into a story I can kind of leave it all up in the air.
SPURGEON: You recently moved away from autobiography and into fiction. Is that fiction's appeal for you? It's certainly a more typical way to organize fiction.
I'm still trying to figure this out. Lately I've been thinking I should go back to autobiography. I kind of shied away from it because when you get the sense that people are reading your stuff [laughs] I suddenly feel more private. "Well, I don't really want people to know that this is how it is." I want to leave it more mysterious. Framing the story as an autobiographical story, though, has a different effect. I'm not sure yet about all that.
SPURGEON: One thing I got from your work early on is a strong sense of place. You were drawing a part of the country that a lot of alternative cartoonists don't. Is that an important part of your art, this interaction with a world around you. You're
the Midwestern cartoonist, in a way. [Huizenga laughs]
I grew up in a small town. It was a suburb of Chicago, but it was kind of its own little village. Chicago kind of expanded out to meet it. The community always had a small town feel. It had a little downtown, and you saw the same people all of the time. Everybody-where they grow up, if they stay in that one place for enough time, I'm sure it has a big effect on the way they are, the way they think, their mental universe. There were parts of town with vacant lots, abandoned buildings-stuff like that. I guess growing up there, this really had a big effect on me. And over time I saw that town overtaken by sprawl, and become another exit off the highway in the miles and miles of sprawl, with a McDonald's and with a bunch of car dealerships, and all the same stores every other town has. And that's the world I grew up and lived in. That's a story of the landscape of America that interests me. It's almost like a [laughs] a ballad or something. A sad ballad, like in the Crumb
movie, when they show his "Short History of America" with the piano music.
The Dutch Community I grew up in had a real ethnic and a real religious identity that was pretty stable for a long time, and just in my short lifetime I've seen it begin to disintegrate. I realize that it's natural and that's what happens. But I'm interested in it anyway, kind of in a detached way I guess. Seeing the way it affects lives and affects people generation to generation. And the way that this happened in conjunction with the village being overtaken by the city sprawl. It just sort of all fits together.
SPURGEON: How often do you get to the drawing board?
The last few years I've been working a lot. I've probably worked a few hours every day and into the night. That's kind of slowed down after this Drawn & Quarterly Showcase
book. I decided to take it easy a little bit because it was starting to wear on me. I wasn't really enjoying the work as much. It was like work, you know? Nowadays I don't work as much as I used to, but on a good week I'll work every day; on a bad week maybe a couple of days. I get maybe four hours in at a time. It takes a couple hours to get rolling, so sometimes it's hard - that's not true, though, sometimes I can quick work on a panel for a half-hour. It's hard to answer that I guess. Not as much as I used to. [laughter]
SPURGEON: Your panels can be very meticulous. How big do you work?
That's changed a lot, too. I was kind of obsessed with that recently-I've been asking people what percentage they worked at. These old newspaper strip guys, I'm sure there was a standard percentage. I kept looking for that magical number. What was it? Was it 160 percent or a 130 percent, or what? I still haven't figured it out. I'm drawing bigger and bigger and bigger. I think I'm drawing at 160 or 170 percent.
SPURGEON: I saw something on your web site where one of the strips was drawn because you wanted to work with a quill pen. Are you still trying to settle on tools?
Yeah. It's kind of like when I'm not working on something specific, I get the idea that I really should get out the quill pens and the brushes and work on that. But then when it comes around to time to get something done for a deadline, I usually go back to markers and ballpoint pens again, because I'm comfortable with that. I keep thinking I would like to eventually become comfortable with a quill pen, but it's been slow going.
SPURGEON: What attracts you to working with a quill pen?
I guess because a lot of the artists that I look at a lot and want to try and draw like used it. Like the old newspaper strip guys. Just having started out using markers and ballpoint pens in my sketchbooks, I kept using markers on all my comics. I really didn't buy good Bristol paper, so if I used a quill pen it would scratch and bleed, and I couldn't figure it out. It was frustrating. I kind of wished I had approached some cartoonists earlier and badgered them and forced them to teach me how to use these tools. I kind of waited too long to figure these things out.
SPURGEON: Are there cartoonists out there that have helped you, given you advice?
Oh, yeah. I've gotten much more bold about calling people up and asking them what they do. At shows we talk about these kinds of things.
Lately I've been working on this story for the next Kramer's Ergot
, and it will be full color. When I had the chance to do that, I jumped at it. So for the last few weeks, almost a month now, I've been trying to figure out how to color my comics on the computer in a way that I'm comfortable with. I've been going back and forth with Sammy [Harkham, editor of Kramer's Ergot
] on that, and with Jordan Crane. They've helped a lot, but I'm never really satisfied. I'm always like, "There's gotta be a better way." I'm always trying to figure it out for myself, too.
SPURGEON: Do you work with a computer?
I've worked as a graphic designer since my second year of college, so I've had seven years to learn Photoshop and etc.. Somewhere along the line I started scanning the comics into the computer, and it seems like every year I learn something new about what I can do to make it easier to edit and fix things. Now it's so much a part of my process, that it's probably bad, because I've become so dependent on it. I just bought a Mac G5, which was obscenely expensive.
SPURGEON: I know an artist that when he worked with color for the first time, he painted some of his pictures just to see what colors worked and didn't. Will you do that kind of testing?
Well, that's another way in which I'm such a bad artist. I've never learned to paint very well, or taken the time to learn. I spent one or two semesters in oil painting, which I really enjoyed, but once the semester was up I put away my paints and haven't touched them since. It's probably just my time constraints that keep me from it. Anytime I have some time to draw, I feel like I should start working on a page, penciling and inking. But I've gotten some color markers lately, and I'm starting to play around with them in my sketchbook now. Just today I ordered the issue of Draw!
magazine where there was a thing by Dave Cooper about how he colors his comics.
SPURGEON: Do you seek out that kind of writing about technique?
Obviously whenever I've come across that stuff I've tried to learn from it. I don't know if you know this, but Sammy and I have been working on a zine for a month or so now where we've been asking different cartoonists technical questions about how they work. We've gotten a lot of answers back. We hope to put together a little zine on that soon.
SPURGEON: Some cartoonists tell me that they have to discover how to do stuff a lot of times, that they don't settle because something new comes up.
I know this is probably bad, but I'm trying to get to the point where I can settle on some things, and I can put more energy into things like getting the story right and making up characters, and things like that. It seems like I put too much energy sometimes into trying a different pad of paper from the art store, or trying a quill pen-but on the other hand, I guess, discovering new things can help your art.
SPURGEON: Do you keep a sketchbook?
I've pretty much kept a sketchbook since seeing the Crumb
movie for the first time. Way back when.
SPURGEON: You're going to make me feel terribly old if you call that "way back when."
[laughs] I think that was when I was in high school.
SPURGEON: Do you work out of your sketchbooks and onto the page?
I used to work straight onto the page a lot more. It's been only in the last few years that I've felt comfortable with just drawing, really. I've really been on a slow curve of learning how to draw. The more I become comfortable with it, the more I feel comfortable just tossing off some sketches. I started thumbnailing much, much more. Part of it is that I got an illustration job where we had to do thumbnails all the time. And so that really taught me how to do a thumbnail or try things out as little sketches. I got confident drawing thumbnails and little sketchy figures. It's really helped me a lot. Writing comics is easier, because the part of my brain that's writing the comics sort of feeds back with the sketches. You draw a little figure, and then it's "What is this figure going to do?" Rather than having this figure in your mind, and you're kind of moving him around in your mind, you have this little figure on the paper, it becomes much more concrete and the ideas seem to flow a lot better.
SPURGEON: The suites of stories in
Gloriana and the
Showcase seem very nuanced in their writing, particularly in their structure.
SPURGEON: Yeah, I do. [laughs] Am I wrong?
I write that stuff over a lot. After a while I can't even read it. No, I do really write that stuff over and over. I usually work on a page and then I kind of just put it on the floor and walk past it every day and kind of glance at it. If there's anything about it that bothers me, it's going to bother me as I'm glancing at it. So it's real agonizing to think you have a page done and then you have to work it over. And work it over again.
SPURGEON: Bothers you in what sense?
Just the way it reads. You want to glance at it and read it as if you didn't draw it. And then being a perfectionist enough where you read something and something about it bothers you and you're like, "I want to fix that." It's your story, so you can actually go ahead and fix it.
Showcase, the stories bleed into one another in various ways. Is that something that developed as you were writing?
Both with Gloriana
and with Showcase
, there's a lot of that intertwining stories thing going on. I don't think I planned that, necessarily, as much as the stories developed that way.
With the Showcase
book, what I really was going for was the second story, the fable. That was my basic plan for the whole story, just to do this fable. While I was working on that, this scene with Glenn going to the mailbox sort of came into play. And then I connected that to these ideas about the "Have You Seen Us?" junk mail and The Lost Boys of Sudan
, and I realized it needed to be its own thing. I saw how those ideas were connected thematically.
The very first page I drew was the first page of the second story, and then I thought of this whole first story idea, and then just tying them together with little connections-that's the kind of thing I like about writing. I always liked stories where there were all these details that made you kind of impressed with the author. [laughs] I guess that's what I want, people to be impressed with me, or something.
SPURGEON: Were you given a blank slate with the
Oh, yeah. Chris Oliveros [publisher of Drawn and Quarterly] asked for something between 20 and 40 pages, and that was that.
SPURGEON: Was there any kind of editorial process?
[laughs] No. None really at all. [Spurgeon laughs] It was kind of like, "It looks great." That was that.
SPURGEON: A lot of people talked about that book; did you get a bounce out of that, any feedback?
I don't know. I haven't heard too terrible much. I had a lot of cartoonists e-mail and say nice things. As far as sales and stuff, I have no idea. That's kind of weird-having self-published so much and then have this book be published by Drawn & Quarterly... I have no idea how much it's selling or who's buying them. I guess I could just ask, but... When I was doing mini-comics, I put a stamp on almost every copy that's sold.
SPURGEON: Is self-publishing something you want to go back to?
I'm not sure. I've been thinking about that a lot lately. About what I want to do next. Whether I want to do book-books-graphic novels-or comic books, like in comic book stores. The pamphlet size has so many things to recommend it, but the book… it's hard to say. One way or the other, I'll probably do a little bit of both.
SPURGEON: How many issues of the mini-comic were you printing at the end?
I don't know-I can check on that and get back to you. I don't want to say a number and be way off. I'm not really sure. But it was getting up there. It was hard to keep track of, because I kept doing more and more print runs. It was doing pretty good.
SPURGEON: Did you have a little distribution system all set up or was it mostly mail order?
No, it was all pretty much mail order. I only sent it to a few stores, like Quimby's, Chicago Comics and Reading Frenzy. That was about it.
The Good Ship Catastrophe
[Note: Kevin at first thought he was being asked about the Catastrophe Shop, which is a part of the larger USSCatastrophe site. He didn't realize I meant the site entire until the third question, and asked a note be appended]
SPURGEON: What's the status of USS Catastrophe?
It's still ongoing, but it's been pretty much taken over at this point by Dan Zettwoch. Me and Ted [May] still have input. We get submissions all the time and the three of us try to read every submission and then we kind of vote on it. And a lot of the votes kind of go two to one one way or the other. So it's kind of good that we kind of balance each other out that way. In terms of the actual mailing and writing people, that's pretty much Dan's job now.
SPURGEON: What was the genesis of the Catastrophe site?
Well, in those few years that Spit and a Half kind of folded up, or was in limbo, it bothered me that there wasn't anything else, really. I was afraid that the world of mini-comics would kind of … at the same I felt that I wanted to do something - I'm kind of a solitary guy - but I kind of wanted to try and do something to help the community. When I was first thinking about doing it, there were things I knew I didn't want to do. Talking to [Spit and a Half owner] John P. [the pen name of cartoonist John Porcellino] about it, he would talk about how one of the hardest things was writing the catalog, actually writing out the descriptions and doing all the copying and mailing them all out. I thought, "Well, we'll just put it on the web and that'll be easy." And then figuring out how to get money from people, the whole Paypal system has really turned out to be really slick.
SPURGEON: There's a lot of original content as well on the site.
I guess I should explain that. The whole USS Catastrophe store was really just me at the beginning. But the whole USS Catastrophe site was up a long time before that and was run by Ted May and Warren Craghead. I really had nothing to do with that other than corresponding with those two guys. I wasn't even really in St. Louis at the time. I was still in Grand Rapids when USS Catastrophe started out. I think they planned on it being an anthology website. When I moved down to St. Louis and got to know Ted May, he was all for this Catastrophe shop idea. We looked at the site stats, and we couldn't believe how many people were looking at USSCatastrophe, and we're just like, "This is crazy." So I put the Catastrophe shop on there, too, and that helped sell a lot of mini-comics.
SPURGEON: Is there a reason you withdrew your involvement from the store?
I did it for a little more than a year or something. It's a lot of work, and after a while I was desperate to get rid of it because it was too many things to worry about. I tend to worry and obsess over these things. I wanted to put the energy back into my comics. Dan's been great with it, really.
SPURGEON: Is there anything about working with these other cartoonists, or even just seeing mini-comics as they're sent to you that's informed your own work. Do you discover cartoonists?
We get a lot of submissions. And without wanting to hurt anyone's feelings, a lot of the stuff we get submitted isn't so great. And a lot of the time, the stuff that we're excited about, that we want to carry, we end having to track down those artists and like pry the books from them. So seeing a lot of work that comes into the Catastrophe shop isn't very... well, inspiring. I don't know, I shouldn't say this stuff, really. Some of it is.
SPURGEON: What about being in St. Louis and spending time with other cartoonists?
Oh, yeah. That's pretty great. Actually, that's what we're doing tonight. I'm supposed to meet up with those guys later. We go out every Thursday night. We meet at the comic book store, then we go out for pizza. We usually end up at Barnes and Noble and draw. The reason we go to Barnes and Noble is because there's lot of magazines to look at. We just sit around and draw until they kick us out. We do that every Thursday night, and that's always one of the highlights of the week.
It's always cool to see what other people are working on. Dan is always working on an actual page of comics. He brings it with, and it's always amazing to me to see how productive he is. Ted's usually drawing in his sketchbook. Ted mulls over his ideas in his sketchbook for months and months before he actually works on a comic. But just sort of peeking over the table at the stuff he puts in the sketchbook, it's always kind of inspiring, but it makes me feel super self-conscious and depressed. Sometimes I'll just put my pen down and sit there and gossip or something, because seeing these guys work is sometimes discouraging [laughs] to me because I'm like, "Oh, man." Because their work is so great. Otherwise, I think we just kind of feed off each other's energy. It's also good for gossiping. Everybody's got different friends in the comics world, so you get all the gossip.
SPURGEON: Do you show each other work? Is there critiquing?
I try to show 'em my work, and I ask if they see any mistakes, stuff like that. With them, I tend to see... between the two of them, they might show each other pages in progress a little more than I see. I wouldn't say there's a whole lot of critiquing going on. There's kind of a response after the thing is published and out there. Sometimes we'll kind of say, "That was my favorite story of yours." Hearing that from one of these guys is always a big charge. But other than that, we'll talk a lot about different cartoonists that we like or hate. You get a different perspective. Like Ted May likes Steve Ditko a lot. Not that I don't like Ditko, but I haven't read that much Ditko. But asking Ted about it and having Ted explain what he likes about Ditko is really instructive.
SPURGEON: You're a fan of the older cartoonists. Which ones in particular?
All the usual ones I guess. [George] Herriman, E.C. Segar, Frank King, Roy Crane...
SPURGEON: Do you re-draw their work to see how they did it?
King and Crane I've actually tried to sit down and draw their panels in my sketchbook. Crane especially to try and learn how to draw figures. It seems like the older cartoonists treat the panel more like a stage, and the figure is in this space, but the camera doesn't change very much. That goes back to my thing about percentage. I'm trying to figure out how big they actually drew their figures, on stage, so I know how big to draw my figures. But that's the kind of thing I'm trying to do, I guess. A lot of times I look at my newer pages and think there are too many close-ups. I'll think I need to draw the figure farther away, like the old cartoonists did.
SPURGEON: In the opposite direction, of the younger cartoonists, is there anyone who leaps out at you? I remember getting a note from you about Ben Jones.
I think I said a bunch of things about Ben Jones to you for the Fort Thunder issue. I'm not sure I knew what I was talking about. But Ben Jones' work has always been really inspiring to me, I think it's because - this sounds stupid - he's very creative. He just comes up with amazing things. His work is unified in a strange way, too. It's hard to explain. The way he will just draw a comic about the Muppet Babies as if it's no big deal, and they'll be rapping or something. It'll be really funny, but beautiful and scary, too. His approach to drawing… it's hard to put into words for me. It's sloppy but readable. There's a lot of visual energy there.
SPURGEON: His work is very different from yours. Has Jones informed your work at all?
I think about the time I was working on the library sequence in the Gloriana book where I tried to do a lot of sloppy drawing, a lot of noisy drawing? That was right around the time I started reading those Fort Thunder comics. You can probably see some influence there, I guess. I know I have a different sensibility than a lot of those people. I'm more square, a little more bookish or something. But there's something about the work that's really… it has a lot of [laughs] - I wanted to say "conceptual integrity," but that's a silly way of saying it. It's just its own thing and it seems like it could go on forever as its own kind of art. That kind of thing is exciting to me. The artist that creates their own idiom, their own world.
SPURGEON: Something that might connect the older cartoonists and the Fort Thunder cartoonists is that a lot of their solutions are fresh and new. Is that something that appeal to you, the idiosyncrasy of their drawing?
No, but I know what you're talking about. Actually, I'm more influenced by what was similar in the older guys than what was idiosyncratic in each one of them. You can see the influences on each other in the way they drew noses, or the way they drew shadows, or the way they framed panels. It seemed like that was kind of an American comics vernacular. I think that really worked well as a style of drawing comics and telling stories. Having a figure shown from only a few angles, and then showing subtle difference from panel to panel-the figure takes on a lot of life that way.
SPURGEON: Are you talking about framing someone in a three-quarters perspective as opposed to a filmic approach?
Yeah; Eisner, something like that. There was something, too, in the older comics in that the panels were big, and the figure didn't really fill up the panels, either. You kind of saw the horizon behind them. You always had the figure in a place, in a landscape. Even if it was just a horizon line with a little house that peaks over the horizon line with a chimney. It really feels like the figure is in that space.
SPURGEON: The St. Louis guys, Ted and yourself and Dan - I was surprised when I read the
Riverfront Times stuff how well that stuff flowed together. I think if I hadn't known your individual art, I might have thought it was from the same studio or a team of artists.
I don't think that's real conscious. I think that's the result of us drawing together or looking at the same stuff.
SPURGEON: Was that comics section fun to do?
Yeah, that RFT
thing was pretty fun to do. We tried to copy different comics styles in the different chapters. For me, trying to draw like Winsor McCay, and looking at those pages really closely-that was really instructive.
SPURGEON: What kind of feedback did you get on that?
In town? I'm trying to remember because I think I went out of town right after that.
SPURGEON: Not on purpose, I hope.
[laughs] I don't think I heard about it, except for some people who knew me but hadn't seen my comics were surprised. "Oh, I saw that thing in the paper." I think they might have been impressed by it, or whatever. But it wasn't like we were suddenly celebrities or anything like that. [Spurgeon laughs] We got a lot of comments like, "It was a lot better than the usual crap that's in there."
SPURGEON: Is newspaper strip work something that interests you?
Not really. I guess I have mixed feelings about it. Part of me thinks that it would be a challenge, that it would be good for my work to try to please a wide audience. Then the other part of me says no, that would be a bad idea, that my work wouldn't be really popular, that it's too quiet, or subtle or something, and I should probably just stick to specialty publishing.
SPURGEON: You adapted Sheridan La Fanu's "Green Tea" for the anthology
Orchid. Tell me how you chose that story.
Well, I read a few stories, and I couldn't find one that I thought would turn into a really good comic. Pretty much it was Dylan Williams, the publisher, feeding me stories. I also tried to find some on the Internet. I probably read like ten or twelve Victorian ghost stories. I settled on the "Green Tea" story, which I didn't realize was such a classic. Since then I looked into it, and people are like "'Green Tea' is the classic Victorian ghost story."
SPURGEON: What about the story appealed to you?
The way it was written I could just kind of see it as I went. It was kind of weird, kind of funny. There's nothing about the story that is really supposed to be funny, but when you step back and see it as this story about a ghost monkey-that's kind of funny. I figured it would kind of look good in cartoon form. And then, well, the story itself-the tormented clergyman, and the "man of science" who was kind of a little bit ridiculous, that was interesting to me. It's a really great story. Reading over the story four or five times like I did, I was really impressed with it - the craftsmanship of it. I learned a lot about what it takes to write a tight story. It's really allusive, too. There's lots of little, not symbols, but half-metaphors in the story, too-it's kind of like addiction, and it's kind of like doubt...
And then I had to do a lot of visual research. Actually, the story is set years earlier than I sort of ended up drawing it. I think it's set in the 1820s or 30s, but I couldn't find very much good reference for that, plus the way people dressed then I wasn't real crazy about drawing. [laughter] It didn't look like From Hell
Victorian. It looked like early Victorian where everything was a little bit frillier. I ended up setting it in the 1880s or something. But nobody noticed, so that was okay.
SPURGEON: You used a modern lead-in.
I've always had this image in my mind of a human head with an arm coming out of the mouth. I figured I would use it some day, so I ended up using it here. Since the story was about a ghost monkey, I changed it to an animal with an arm in its mouth. Then there's the whole idea of Native American spirit animals that got mixed up in there, too. It just all fell together. A lot of times when I'm working on a story that's what happens. Different things I've been think about will click together, and the story will be more about how these ideas interact together more than anything else.
SPURGEON: How did you decide to do a lead-in to begin with? Most of the stories were pretty straightforward in terms of structure.
I actually started on a different story, about a white cat that visited people right before they died. This white cat would appear. There's this thing in Victorian ghost stories where - I don't know the word I'm looking for - but in the genre, there's this characteristic of most of the stories where it's a couple of steps removed from reality. Someone is re-telling a story they heard from somebody else. The story is framed that way. I thought that was kind of interesting [laughs] in an epistemological way, that these stories of the fantastic had to be framed a couple of times removed. And this white cat story had a frame that was a little bit ridiculous. It was like a guy telling you a story he heard from a guy and he heard it from a guy - one of those kinds of things. Then when I changed over to the "Green Tea" story, I still wanted to do this thing where it was like I the cartoonist telling you a story that I heard from so and so, and so on. It ended up just being a Glenn Ganges frame. The frame idea and the dog with the hand in its mouth idea just kind of fit together well.
SPURGEON: Did "28th Street" in the
Showcase book build out of your desire to do a similar adaptation?
I got the assignment for the Showcase
book while I was wrapping up "Green Tea." I panicked and I was like, "What am I going to do?" I didn't have an idea lined up for that, but I had been reading [Italo] Calvino's collection of Italian folk tales, so I thought I'd just adapt one of those and make it a Glenn Ganges story somehow.
SPURGEON: Now often when stories like these are recontextualized the way you're doing them, there's an added effect, a distance - the knowledge that someone is telling the story changes the way you look at the story itself. I'm not sure that makes sense.
I think I know what you mean. The idea of doing other people's stories never really occurred to me until I went through this kick of reading a lot of Jorge Luis Borges. The way that Borges would incorporate these older stories, like 1001 Nights, he would do re-tellings of these stories, and fit these old stories under his own ideas about infinity or libraries or labyrinths. I thought that was great. There was something spot on about that. I think Borges read voraciously, and when you read so much you want to do something with your reading. Kind of re-adapting it, making it your own. I guess it's kind of selfish, but if you do it respectfully I think it's great.
SPURGEON: In "28th Street," is there an effect you're hoping for by telling a fable through modern trappings? The richness of the fantasy plays off the spare urban setting, and plays up the poignancy of the setting.
A lot of times when I put things together, I think, "Aw, this isn't going to work." Then I get this idea of it might work, or if it doesn't it might be interesting in its failure. I don't know. I don't really think about it too much other than it's this instinctual idea, this kind of gut feeling that's going to work.
SPURGEON: Are you still working on an adaptation of Gogol's "A Terrible Vengeance"?
I'm just starting on that. Working on "Green Tea" has really helped me figure out a good system for adapting things, so I'm doing it kind of the same way. The problem with that is the research has been harder so far because it's about Cossacks.
SPURGEON: The Gogol story is well known for its use of language and slang, which seems to me an interesting impediment.
It's kind of a goofy, weirdly written story. I'm still in the early stages. I'm not sure how I'm going to approach it yet. The comic is going to be long, though. I'm real excited to do it.
SPURGEON: What is your system for adapting things?
I read the story a couple of times, and then I kind of summarize it in my sketchbook as I read. "Terrible Vengeance" in my sketchbook ended up being ten or twelve pages. I type that into the computer, and then take that summary and start dividing it into pages. With "Green Tea" I knew every page was going to have around six panels, so I could go in and do the summary panel by panel. Then what I could do is sit down and thumbnail out a couple of pages, start working on them, and go from there.
And really, that went so well with "Green Tea" that I'm starting to do that in general with all my stories-figure out how many panels I'm going to have on the page - rows of panels sometimes - then in a document on the computer, write a short sentence for each row or each panel, and then try to picture how that page is going to work.
Masks and Expressions
SPURGEON: You seem to have grown a lot more comfortable drawing figures, particularly Glenn. Your figures seem more expressive.
Somebody said something about my Showcase
story, I think, that they thought my figures were really inexpressive. I thought a lot about that, and I know that's true. But I'm kind of shooting for that, because I kind of want them to be flat so that you can kind of read emotion into them. I want their movements be subtle. Edward Gorey's figures always struck me as having this weird life to them that was subtle. Comparing Gorey's drawing to my figures is probably not a good idea, but that's what I was thinking about, I guess. As opposed to, like, Peter Bagge's figures, which have their own kind of subtlety. But it's a different thing than what I'm going for, I guess.
SPURGEON: It hit me reading the
Showcase book and some of the upcoming work you've done I once made a couple of assumptions about your character designs I don't think I would make now. There's a personality to your figures that wasn't there before.
That's something I still struggle with. I think when I have too much close-ups, or too many weird visual angles on my characters, I draw their anatomy kind of close to regular anatomy, and so they look more like human figures with cartoon masks on. I don't want them to look like that. I want them to look like cartoony characters, but maybe I don't exaggerate them enough.
SPURGEON: That's just it: I don't get the masking effect from your work anymore. Your use of slight movement has become much more effective.
I've been trying to keep the camera still as much as I can. That's something I get from looking at someone like Chris Ware-the camera is so still, and the figure changes a little bit from panel to panel. I think figures that way end up having much more life than in something like a Neal Adams-type layout.
SPURGEON: Is balancing pages a concern for you in something like "28th Street"?
book I drew kind of a weird way. I drew the pages big, but I take the page with me to work, or out to a cafe or something, so I ended up cutting a lot of pages in half. And that was kind of a problem later in reassembling them and trying to balance them out. That was a big problem and a lot of those pages ended up being kind of unbalanced. I don't know… I think what I'm going for is something more along the lines of something that's readable, more than having the whole pages balanced, but obviously balance is still important.
SPURGEON: How did you develop your word balloons, with the delicate line?
I think I started doing that in Gloriana
. When I started drawing Gloriana
, the first few pages where Wendy and Glenn unload bags of groceries-I wanted that to look kind of old-fashioned, like Popeye
or something. I drew the word balloons that way and ended up liking it a lot.
SPURGEON: A couple of quick questions that were e-mailed to me: In the third story in the
Showcase suite Glenn Ganges' hair changes color
It happened in Gloriana
, too. I did a lot of the same things in Showcase
that I did in Gloriana
. I varied Glenn from story to story but in little, subtle ways. Like his shirt color and his hair color change. And I don't really have a good secret reason for that other than - well, I did it more on purpose in Gloriana
because I wanted to separate those stories out in subtle ways. With Showcase
, there are a lot of things where it amused me to do the same things that I did in Gloriana
. But I don't want to give anything away, though...
SPURGEON: Give me one.
Well, there are red moons in both stories, there are feathers in both stories, that sort of thing.
SPURGEON: The other question: why does Glenn Ganges have his pants off in the scene with the monster in "28th Street"?
That's because… I don't know. [laughter] It just seemed like a good idea at the time. He did that because the doctor told him to. Do you remember that? When the doctor tells him the stuff he needs to do to get the feather-that was one of those folk tale touches. There are some other reasons for that, but that's on the secret, hidden level of the story.
SPURGEON: Now, is that just for the smart people, or just for you?
[laughs] The secret society. The whole Showcase
story has to do with… well, one of the things it has to do with is-what's the world I'm looking for? Not "fecundity" but something like that. What's the word... like "reproduction," or... what do you call those gods?
Right, fertility. I tried to hide some fertility/sexuality references in there. That was one of those little things that seemed like it would fit thematically and be kind of stupid at the same time.
SPURGEON: With the forthcoming "Jeepers Jacobs" work in
Kramer's Ergot, it seems like your way of visually presenting a story has settled into a groove. It's very much of a piece with your recent work.
It's true. I even used a panel - there's a panel where they're driving in their car that I drew exactly like a panel from Gloriana
, and I think I even drew it the exact same way in the Showcase
book. [laughs] I don't know if it's a good idea for me to repeat myself like that, but I guess I'll do that until I start to think it's a bad idea. I kind of am settling a little bit. I go back and forth on it.
But it's what I want to do. Jaime Hernandez' work is just incredible to me, but you can kind of see where the Hernandez guys settled into their way of drawing-sort of like Archie
. It's not to say they don't experiment. Someone like Jim Woodring, too. They settle into their own thing. Charles Schulz. The great cartoonists, especially the newspaper guys, they created their world and mapped out some fuzzy boundaries to it. And then you get rolling and there are endless possibilities for variation. Within this metaphysical world - it's almost like a game. I think a lot of people would see this as getting into a rut, but I always wanted to get to the point where I have that, where I have that world. Make the boundaries fuzzy enough to have infinite possibilities but at the same time have some things be settled. Have some things be comfortable so that you sort of know where you are.
SPURGEON: Is working with the Glenn Ganges character part of that?
Yeah. I think it's a part of it. I kind of think of Glenn Ganges as my Castor Oyl.
[laughs] Can we expect Popeye to show up?
That's it exactly. I'm kind of hoping a Popeye will come along eventually. For the time being, I'm trying to make Glenn my flat, cipher Castor Oyl character. If I need to, I'll make him a private detective, too.