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A Short Interview With K. Thor Jensen
posted April 14, 2007
 

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I first met K. Thor Jensen in Seattle in November 1994, where he was (I think) the youngest member of that city's art comics community and ran/socialized/was associated with a group of cartoonists that included Tom Hart, Ed Brubaker, Megan Kelso, James Sturm and Jason Lutes. I was aware that Jensen continued to do comics and illustrations long after we both left Seattle, but I saw very little of his art.

I can't say that anymore. Red Eye, Black Eye is a travelogue where very little happens, a post-9/11 snapshot in 300 pages, a description of life as we live it that focuses on daily routine more than articulations of significance and meaning, and a narrative focused just as much on the way we tell stories in order to gain perspective and present ourselves to the world as it is its own, ostensible, story. Maybe the best thing about Red Eye, Black Eye is its unapologetic self-assuredness. There's no movie here, no subliminal tryout for a Marvel book, no attempt despite its autobiographical nature to get its author over as some kind of cool comics making guy, or to grab you and shake you until you share his lyrical worldview. It's just a story of a period in an author's life, told in straightforward, amusing fashion. I think Jensen's unique voice can heard with a great deal of clarity in the following interview as well.

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TOM SPURGEON: I'm catching you pretty late in the book's initial sales cycle. Is it nice having Red Eye, Black Eye out there?

K. THOR JENSEN: It's incredibly nice having it out there just because I've been done with it for a year. I did a little bit of clean-up on it, but basically it's been sitting.

SPURGEON: Is there some nefarious reason for that?

JENSEN: No. Jeff [Mason, of Alternative Comics] needed to clear room on his schedule. He's dialed down the amount of books he's publishing, which is probably for the best. Just making room for it, and making sure he can afford to print it.

SPURGEON: Did you send copies to all the people in the book? Do those people get a free copy?

JENSEN: [laughs] Uh, those people did not get a free copy. I could have theoretically sent them free copies. [Spurgeon laughs] I'm sure if someone was desperately poor and said, "I really want to see it," I would have sent them one. But nobody has.

imageSPURGEON: Is everyone happy with how they're depicted?

JENSEN: Most people are pretty happy with their presentation. Some people are complaining I drew them too fat. A common problem is that I bulk up people in general. The first time I met Ed Brubaker, he had read my comics and said, "I thought you'd be really fat!" And I told him that I thought he'd be thin. [Spurgeon laughs]

SPURGEON: Has there been any reaction to this new book from your old gang, the cartoonists you used to hang out with in Seattle?

JENSEN: Tom Hart is doing a reading with me and some other people next Sunday [April 8]. So he's seen it and liked it. Dave Lasky came over for dinner when he was exploring, out on the coast a little bit, and he seemed to really like it. It's weird, because I keep in touch with very few of those people. I see Tom and Jon Lewis because they live out here. I barely see Megan Kelso anymore. She's raising a kid. It's funny, a lot of those people have scattered to the north winds.

SPURGEON: You're all busy, too.

JENSEN: I don't think any of us realized that we'd all be this insanely busy ten years in the future.

SPURGEON: It struck me as I was calling you that so many of you in that Seattle group are still working, still doing interesting stuff. Making graphic novels, teaching...

JENSEN: Founding colleges... There's a high retention rate in that group. A lot of people from that group are still making vital work.

SPURGEON: Why do you think that is?

JENSEN: I don't know! Because there wasn't any unifying philosophy. It was just like "Here's a bunch of cartoonists in Seattle trying to make it, let's get together and make our work better, hopefully by mutual critique."

SPURGEON: At what point did you know the experience you detail in Red Eye, Black Eye was going to become this book? Was doing a book always your intention?

JENSEN: It was not always the intention. I just left, and as I was going around I sort of by my nature recorded things and drew things and kept a sketchbook. I didn't come up with the actual thematic content of the book until significantly later, after I had the time to digest everything. I thought, "Oh, maybe I should do a book of this." And then I started kicking around ideas. As I started working ideas up it became a book as opposed to a collection of stories.

SPURGEON: One thing that's interesting about your book is the pacing of it, how you communicate the feel of going on this longish trip with you. How did you settle on the book's basic parameters?

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JENSEN: Visually, I wanted it to be very deliberate in presentation. Very inflexible, and easy to parse. When I made the visual decision to do the six-panel pages and construct chapters in a certain way, and then to adapt mini-stories into each chapter. Once I had those basic elements down, it was like, "Here's how many beats it will take me to get to the next thing." A lot of is about the minimum amount of information I can convey to move me forward. Two months and 300 pages doesn't break down all that well. So I guess it was mostly a visual concern, primarily, which determined the pacing. How do I make this work in the visual template I've built?

SPURGEON: You might not want to say, but how documentarian are you? Was there any significant playing around with the facts?

JENSEN: The only stuff I changed was omissions. I edited things out. That's a challenge in doing anything like this, and I think most of the flaws in the book come from hewing close to the truth. If I had to do it over again, I would probably fudge more. I would change things for speed and pacing.

SPURGEON: What's something that you think doesn't work?

JENSEN: There's a couple of chapters that I think are deadening. What I tried to do within the overall structure of the book is make these deadening chapters mean something in the overall structure. The San Francisco chapter, nothing really happens! I realized that when I was putting together. I didn't do anything. Nothing. I tried to pull that in, and use that to work with the overall context of the book, to make something out of it. In the future I might have omitted it entirely, or I might have made something up that was more exciting and fits. I'll never have to worry about that again.

imageSPURGEON: Is drawing stories out of people something you generally do, or is it something specific to that trip?

JENSEN: It's something I generally do. I really like talking to people. That's my number one hobby, talking shit with people. When you're meeting somebody new, when you're having this new experience, people like to share things about their lives in this kind of context. I think people have a natural instinct in general to tell stories. It's an entertaining part of conversation. I think that it's possible I steered people towards that as I went along. I had heard some great ones and was interested and thought there could be something useful there.

SPURGEON: One source of tension throughout the book is that you're dropping into these people's lives, the routine of these people's lives, and yet you get them to relate these stories that tend to play off this very mundane existence you're entering into.

JENSEN: They're like windows.

SPURGEON: I really like the documentary aspect of that, where you get this sense of people's lives as lived, which is really hard to do. You get this sense of how you blend into their routine. I thought that worked really well.

JENSEN: The routine part was really important to me. A lot of the book was about me not having anything yet. Here are other people, what are they doing? How do they get through their lives? That was something I tried to work with. In a lot of cases, people weren't interrupting what they were doing because I was visiting. They were doing what they were doing and I was there.

SPURGEON: How much has your perception of that period of your life changed since you experienced it?

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JENSEN: That is a good question. It's interesting because the big changes, the sweeping changes that I was hoping to happen in my life didn't happen until years later. The process of starting this book was really one of the driving forces for the actual change that happened. Before I left, I was totally creatively stagnant. I had published virtually nothing in three years. Total, incredible dead period for me creatively. I had no energy, no ideas, no interest in anything. Working on this book, and since it was serialized on Serializer seeing an immediate reaction to it, gave me the energy I needed to start moving things in a more productive direction. After I got back from New York I was homeless for another year. The way my reaction to the trip was presented in the book is honest to the time. I knew that I wasn't learning anything. I knew that I wasn't getting anywhere. I knew that it wasn't changing my life. But the process of making a book about it did.

SPURGEON: Was there anything in terms of a literary or comics antecedent that you either looked at or aspired to before beginning the book?

JENSEN: Nothing specific. I wasn't working from a model. There are certainly general influences on my work that are more prominent in a book like this. I don't know.

SPURGEON: Is there anything to be said about autobiographical comics once being a popular form within alt-comix and maybe less popular now, that might have had an effect on your making the book?

JENSEN: It's popular in the sense that comics memoirs are popular. That's a fairly strong thing. For most of my career, my work has been autobiographical, but the last few years I've been trying to move away from that. I'm tired of the restriction on it. I'm tired of the feeling that my work is being boxed in by these restraints. This book is the step out of that. I can't promise that the direction of my work has completely changed and I'll never go back, but for now there's a feeling I've drained this well. Doing a long-form autobiographical work is not anything particularly new for me; most of my published work has been in that genre.

SPURGEON: What size do you work?

JENSEN: For Red Eye, Black Eye, they were drawn on very large watercolor paper. Let me check to make sure -- it's 12" by 15" watercolor paper. It was drawn very, very large, very, very quickly.

SPURGEON: What are you working from by the time you get to drawing? Are you working from a script, or notes?

JENSEN: No script, no notes. I pencil and ink as I go.

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SPURGEON: Is the visual impact of a page important to you, then?

JENSEN: Something like Red Eye, Black Eye, where the page already has a specific grid, for me it was hit the beat at the end of the page, get where you're going, figure out what needs to be communicated. A lot of the pages in Red Eye, Black Eye are kind of ugly. Some of them are nice. It's not my best drawing. It's not anywhere close to it. It was drawn in a very specific way that sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. It was drawn because I had to have a ton of characters in it. It had to be possible for me to draw 300 pages of in a reasonable amount of time, and it had to be readable at the size I wanted to print it.

SPURGEON: Your figures hold a lot of weight, though, which isn't something you think of when you think of drawing quickly. You say the work isn't your best drawing, but in a sense there's a meaty quality to the visuals, too.

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JENSEN: I think it's the right style to the book. I wouldn't draw the book any other way. I think it's a great style for comics. It reads well for comics. The blacks lead your eyes through the page. Here's one thing: nobody ever changes their clothes in the book. That's a definite, cartoony decision, where these are costumes, they're figures that should have the same visual quality no matter where you see them. Stuff like that was considered. I use a lot of black. Especially when I'm working on this watercolor board, that just takes a brush beautifully, it looks great, it's an impetus for me to do that.

A lot of the aesthetic decisions made in this book were made because I knew I wanted to do a small book you could hold in your hand, where you could pick it up and identify what's going on on any page on any panel. "This person is talking to this person." It was definitely designed for the readability.

SPURGEON: Have you heard back from people on that specific issue?

JENSEN: No. Most of the reviews have been focused on the narrative. That's the part people seem to empathize with the most.

SPURGEON: You sound disappointed.

JENSEN: No, no. Most comics reviewers aren't going to engage you on those formal levels. That kind of discourse just isn't happening. It is what it is. I can hope for feedback from my peers on it. If anybody want to give me feedback on that, no matter what their qualification are, I'd be happy to hear it. But I don't expect it. I don't think many cartoonists expect it.

SPURGEON: You work in the gaming industry, right?

JENSEN: I work for a company called GameLab, that does casual games. Basically: accessible games, for people who aren't gamers. We did a game called Diner Dash a couple of years ago that was hideously popular. A massive, massive hit. We've done a bunch of other games, but that's the game that made our name. We work on a bunch of different things for a bunch of different platforms. We do a live-action experimental player game at this conference in San Francisco. It's interesting for me because it's definitely not a company where it's like "What can we do to make us the most money?" It's what can we do that's challenging or interesting. I've been into videogames and computer games all my life. I grew up in that generation where it's a part of your daily entertainment. So it's nice to be in a position where I can do something interesting with that as well.

SPURGEON: Is there anything instructive about working in that industry and publishing in this one?

JENSEN: There's definitely different things that can be communicated, but the interesting thing about gaming and the gaming industry now is that most video games are getting more expensive and complicated and realistic. Computing power is getting to the point where we can do that. We can make things look real and feel real. And running counter to this has been this trend of making games that are called casual games, one of the genres we work in. That's the largest growing segment of the market. Like massively. And the main audience for these games is women ages 25-45. Diner Dash sold a million copies, which is insane. It's not something that normally happens, but people are realizing that this medium is capable of doing something other than what we've been doing with it. It's capable of more than a guy in robot armor shooting somebody. It's similar to the comics industry in that people are realizing that other genres can grab other audiences. It's interesting watching that happening.

SPURGEON: Is there the same bewildered quality greeting this discovery in gaming?

JENSEN: There was for a while. I could send you New York Times articles that are like, "What is this?" But you can't argue with the numbers. It's really successful. So there is an audience that wants to play games that is being turned off by content. We definitely have the same situation in comics. There's an audience that obviously wants to find some kind of satisfaction in graphic literature that has been turned off by the prevailing content.

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SPURGEON: How much are you cartooning then these days?

JENSEN: Not as much as I would like, for a lot of reasons. I just started my job at Gamelab in January. My wife is pregnant. We found out it's a boy today.

SPURGEON: Congratulations, that's awesome.

JENSEN: I'm very excited. So there's been a lot of stuff. I'm working on some shorter things. I'm planning out the next project, doing research for it. It's historical semi-fiction, so it's very complicated. I'm extremely excited about it. It's a great project, and everybody I've talked to about it is head over heels with it. My agent loves it. It's a very exciting thing. I just have to make sure I can do it right. I'm just sort of doing deck-clearing stuff. I'm starting a serialized thing on The Chemistry Set with Daniel Kibblesmith, this filmmaker I know. He's done the script, and I'm illustrating it.

It's a serious homage to The Maxx and early Image comics. He has this deep emotional connection to these comics that I don't. At all. I'd never write this story. But there's something really compelling in the script, this connection that he has to the material that led him to make this script. I'm coloring the pages with this ridiculous method that approximates coloring from that period where artists were still using black holding lines, but the colors were weird and splotchy and water-colory looking? If you look at early issues of The Maxx, it looks like that. It's a really low commitment in terms of the work I have to do, and doing work like that helps you discover techniques that you can apply on a future project. My next book, I'm hoping, is in full color.

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SPURGEON: Do you have a set of ambitions about comics, goals or aims you want to meet?

JENSEN: I want to make comics until I die. I've never entertained the illusion I'll be able to make comics as a full-time job. Ideally... my wife and I run a textile business where she is a fabric, textile designer, and we've been running a retail business with her designs. The ideal situation is that the business grows to the point where we can run the business from home -- she says I can run from the business from home, she doesn't want to -- and I would take care of the kids and get some cartooning done.

SPURGEON: Do you see comics as a place to have that kind of lifelong relationship?

JENSEN: If nobody's publishing me, I'll go down to Kinko's and Xerox it myself. I'll silkscreen covers in my apartment. It's the only thing I know how to do. I've always know that this is what I wanted to do, for as long as I can remember. It's what I was born for.

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all art from the graphic novel under discussion except the last one, which I just thought looked cool.

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Red Eye, Black Eye, K. Thor Jensen, Alternative Comics, softcover, 304 pages, 1891867997 (ISBN), January 2007, $19.95.

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