Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary
















May 13, 2007


Sunday Interview: Jordan Crane

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*****

When you work with the hope of discovering the latest alternative-comics cartoonists, there are generally two ways you find out about new talent: someone familiar sneaks up on you by putting out work which breaks with all of their past efforts, or you suddenly start hearing a new name one everyone's lips, usually after convention-season time. Jordan Crane was one of the latter. People started talking about his work that they saw at West Coast cons in 1996, particularly the anthology magazine Non. Non not only carried some of Crane's early, intriguing comics but made a second, equally important impression for its overall look. Although perhaps better known in recent years as a designer, Crane has long been working to put his comics work front and center, attacking a variety of stories and serials through venues in print and on-line. His most significant offerings -- or at least those which seem best able to fulfill the breadth of his early promise -- are books. This includes The Last Lonely Saturday, a small and elegant piece which has gone through a number of printings in a variety of formats, and Above the Clouds, a prime example of an all-ages comics story that offers beauty, humor, an idiosyncratic set of visual moments and a great deal of clever writing.

It is the French-language edition of the second book just mentioned, Dans Les Nuages, that is the trigger for my talking recently with Jordan Crane. Needless to say, the Dargaud-published book which dropped in late April isn't a straight-up foreign edition but an entire re-working of the book as it appeared in North America. I spoke to Crane as he maneuvered into and then around his studio. When he gets going, Crane talks like an aggressive painter splashing color onto a canvas. We spoke about the new book, how an exacting designer approaches the inexact printing that sometimes comes in comics production, and his ongoing series, Uptight.

*****

imageTOM SPURGEON: Where do you work now? Do you have studio space somewhere?

JORDAN CRANE: I have a studio. It's above this store on Fairfax. It's great. I get to get out of the house every day. Actually go to work. [laughs] It's pretty awesome.

SPURGEON: Do you share your space with other cartoonists?

CRANE: Just Sammy [Harkham] right now. He's gone so often it's basically just me.

SPURGEON: That whole block, that whole area of Los Angeles is being re-done, right?

CRANE: It's slowly sort of changing over. It's kind of still in progress. There's definitely still some crummier places on the block, and some more interesting places. If it wasn't for the crummier places, it would be just kind of a hip block. The crummier places make it a little more interesting.

SPURGEON: You never want your neighborhood to gentrify too quickly.

CRANE: Yeah, exactly. We can wait on the hordes of Japanese tourists that are already showing up.

SPURGEON: I got the idea for doing the interview from Dargaud... you know, I've never said that word out loud before.

CRANE: That's how Kim Thompson says it. [laughter]

SPURGEON: Can you tell me how you ended up doing a version of The Clouds Above (Dans les nuages) with them?

CRANE: Basically through Kim Thompson. They were looking around to sell the rights to Clouds Above, and Dargaud was interested in it. I had never been with a big company before. So I figured let's try it and see what happens. I don't know. I published something else with Pasteque. They were really cool. They sent me pages really promptly and did it exactly how it wanted. I was thinking I would go with them. But I also was thinking France sells a lot of books, apparently. So let's see what happens with a huge company that has a larger distribution network. I thought I would try it. And to be honest, one of the biggest selling points was that they were going letter the book for me. [laughs] When I re-lettered Col-Dee for Pasteque it was just a fucking hand-cramping nightmare. But Dargaud ended up completely botching the lettering! I had to basically fix the whole book. The biggest selling point ended up not being a selling point at all.

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SPURGEON: Didn't you reformat the book in general?

CRANE: Completely, yeah. Completely. They gave me two options when we talked about doing the book. They said, "We can just republish the book exactly how it is." Or, and they would prefer the second one, "We can reformat it into the European format." Initially I thought I just wanted it the way it was. That's great how it is. It's already been done, why change it? But then I thought, you know, maybe I can change it. Then I thought I could do giant splash panels, and that would be fun. That kind of clinched it. Great. I'll reformat the whole thing and do giant splash panels. In theory, it will go pretty fast. I thought I could do it in a couple of months, and it ended up taking half a year.

SPURGEON: Are you re-drawing?

CRANE: I had to draw more. It had to be 48 pages. When I reformatted it at six panels a page, it ended up being 32 pages or something dismal. I thought, "That's fine, I'll do 10 splash panels, that takes up four panels on a page." I thought I'd only have to do a few of those. It started expanding and expanding and expanding; it was a big undertaking I wasn't expecting to have to do. That's why Uptight #2 isn't out yet.

SPURGEON: Are you happy with the final result?

CRANE: I haven't seen the book-book. But the story? Yeah, that's improved. I like it more the way I've re-done it. There are a few things that when I re-did it it made more sense the way I revised it. It worked better narratively. Really happy with how it came out. Definitely.

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SPURGEON: Are there changes in the rhythm of it with the splash pages? Because there's a very deliberate rhythm to the US edition.

CRANE: The splash pages ended up being almost like chapter breaks. Chapter breaks and almost sort of like cymbals. C-Y-M cymbals. When there was a really big thing, I could make it big. I thought back on what I would have done differently. I kind of like the idea of using the splash pages in the same format with Fantagraphics, but instead of using the bordered panels doing panels with full-bleed, and that would work the same way in the old format. It was a nice break from the monotony of the panels as I had them. It was good to think about that, and think about breaking it up.

It lead to some other stuff where I'm not exactly breaking the grid but expanding... I've been doing six panels a page for years and year and years. And now I'm attaching two panels together. [laughter] I know, I know. It's like, "Wow, that's daring." But now I know why I'm doing that now. I'd always been reluctant to do that, because "Why do that?" Now I feel like I have an understanding of it.

SPURGEON: Is that the reason you were so rigid, you couldn't think of a reason not to be?

CRANE: I don't feel it's entirely necessarily to tell a story outside of the panels. I feel like having each panel the same size and the same number on the page, the same spacing and all that, kind of relegates the story to everything that happens inside the panels. The sensational things, the high points and the low points, and the extra dramatics rely on the narrative flow rather than drawing it bigger. So that's what I tried to focus on: the content of the panels rather than drawing it really big, relying on that. That had always really bothered me in comics. Splash page: this means it matters. This part is important. It always really bugged me. Also with manga, it's what you do. You make the page all fucking weird. You know?

Oh, God, reading modern superhero comics, none of it makes any fucking sense. It's not a language. It's just a bunch of drawings where you can read the words and string it together narratively and get through it. But there's no language, there's no punctuation, there's nothing that makes formal sense about it. I suppose you could argue that that sort of intuition on the part of the reader is the leap that art can make, and all that sort of thing. But I really don't buy it. Not on your average issue of Teen Titans or whatever the fuck.

Spider-Man is one I looked at recently because I was buying it for my boy, and it was crazy. It was just a bunch of pictures. The pictures are nice and all, but it's sensational bullshit. Sensational meaning crazy drawings. Not even crazy drawings, but fabulous looking drawings that don't have a language. So that bothered me. As I'm wont to do, I took the opposite stance, and I'm like, "Okay, everything happens in the panels." And I relied on this very strict flow and timing and everything is the same. Everything in the panels creates a story. That's a really long explanation. [laughter] Probably still about as unclear as when I'm started.

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SPURGEON: No, I think it's all there. So you're back on your comic book series Uptight now? You've mentioned it a couple of times without prompting, which usually means it's something the interviewee is excited about.

CRANE: Yeah. It's great. I feel like for the first time ever -- and this is something that having a studio has helped to bring about -- but for the first time ever I wake up, I go to work, and at the end of the day I go home. It's this steady progress of working. Every day there's writing, and the very first thing I do is write until I have got a clear path for at least the day ahead of me. At best a couple of days in the future. So I can keep moving everything forward. In a concrete way. By writing I mean actually doing the final draft on the page. And then I ink. It's this sort of unrelenting feeling of this is what I have to do every day. It's made it easier to face. When I wasn't doing it every day regularly. I'd think, "Oh God... I'm going to fuck it up. I'm going to do this, and it's not going to be good. It's not going to work." I have to get this big boulder of emotional bullshit out of the way before I can attempt to do the story. Now it's just what I have to do. And I sit down and do it. Regularity breed familiarity.

SPURGEON: There's a certainly logic to comics that I think people are re-discovering, this one man, one comic philosophy where you have something that you put out that you're responsible for. It's not like you're split between a ton a different projects. There's a bottom line towards getting something out that keeps you working. You're one of a group of artists at Fantagraphics publishing through comic books again.

CRANE: I'm certainly not looking at doing anything differently in terms of storytelling than I used to. Okay, because I have a comic I do get to do more short stories, which is something that's great for me. For years I've been doing long stories. Doing a short story is good for many reasons. You get to be done with something. That's probably the biggest one. But in getting to be done with something, by completing a narrative arc, I feel like it's instructive. You get to reflect on something. You feel like there's growth. You get to try crazy new shit with new characters. You get to go into new worlds every story you do. I don't think I'd be doing that if it weren't for having a comic book to do it in.

Outside of that, which is something I'd been wanting to do, within every longer story there's a lot of episodic things that stand on their own. That fits very well into the periodic nature of comics. It can hold the longer stories as well. For me it's kind of like as long as it can sustain itself, it's a lot more gratifying than what I'd be doing otherwise, putting it on-line. I'm not going to kid myself that there's going to be a resurgence in comic books or anything like that. I'm sure the comic book is a fucking relic. It's a relic that I love. I love it. It'd be cool if it had a baseline life, and didn't die. I don't know that it's going to die. I'm sort of an alarmist. I'm hoping that it has a baseline life, and I'm sure there's a couple thousand people out there interested in buying it. You know?

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SPURGEON: One of the big differences between now and 15 years ago is that art- and indy-comics publishers have allowed the overall category to slip below the saturation level in terms of books coming out, past that tipping point at which you give a devoted readership a reason to go to the comics shop every week.

CRANE: Yeah, that's true. There are so few comics coming out. I can go to San Diego every year and get them all there.

I think a lot of people have gotten uptight about the literary-ness of comics, that there have to be giant masterworks. That was something I was attracted to more when I was starting out than I am now. I think there's the aspect of making stories, and not being too precious about thinking I know all the answers. It's better to march forward blindly than to just sit and wonder about things. The most important thing is the making of stories. It seems like a lot of cartoonist have gotten bunched up trying to make one good story, making their comics so damn good that it doesn't come out with any regularity at all. It's really frustrating. I think that urge towards excellence, it probably clouds the issue.

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SPURGEON: The cover to Uptight #1 was pretty.

CRANE: Thank you.

SPURGEON: A lot of your work is. Is it difficult to get the effects you want through comics production? Because I would assume it would be more difficult to control the final product the way you can when you're silk-screening or something more hands-on.

CRANE: Let's see. Yes, it is difficult to get the exact effect I'm looking for in print. But I don't care that much that I don't get it. I kind of expect not to get it. So when I'm drawing it, and doing all the colors and all the layouts -- specifically the cover, say -- I'm kind of expecting them to print the colors too dark or too light, so I set things up to be kind of fucked up. "That's how it's going to be."

If you look closely at the first issue of Uptight, there's actually two different paper stocks. It seems like they ran out of one and just started up with another. [laughter] The papers are two different colors. You know? I like that. It's good. I was telling Kim I wanted this book to be as cheaply made as possible, the cheapest paper stock, no cover stock. Like I said earlier, if it wasn't for the comic being able to sustain itself -- and it might not, at any issue they might go, "Uhhh... this is not happening" -- I'd have to put it on-line and I don't want to that. I like having a comic book.

Furthermore, I'll save the fanciness for the actual book. There is something really satisfying about a comic book that I don't have to worry about. I have all these comics that I do have to worry about. Even Love and Rockets has that stiff cover on it. It's nice having a comic you can kind of bend in half. I wanted it to be cheap to make, cheap to buy, and to that end I make everything when I put it together pretty sturdy so the printer can fuck it up pretty bad before it's ugly. Even the best printer can't seem to color match everything. I'm thinking it must be really hard work to color match anything. So I try to make my colors sturdy enough they don't have to match.

SPURGEON: Was putting out a special edition of Clouds Above motivated at all by your wanting to work on a level of execution you couldn't get with the regular edition?

CRANE: I like books with handmade parts to them. I like getting books from artists that have book plates in them, or that are screen-printed or whatever. I wanted to make a version of the book that was extra special... just extra special. Something I could give to my friends and something someone could buy if they wanted the most beautiful version of the book they could get.

SPURGEON: Are you generally a fan of high-end books?

CRANE: Yes, I am. This is an artist's version of a book. I don't like collectible for collectible's sake. What I liked about making this extra fancy version was doing this six-color screenprinted cover that was detailed and having gold bookplate in it. The perfect version of the book. I wanted to have a dustjacket on the other version, but we couldn't afford it. So this is like making my version of it. I love books like that. If I knew Edward Gorey had done those books back when you could buy them cheaply, I'd have all of them. There aren't a lot of artists that make special versions of their books.

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SPURGEON: Do you have a peer group, do you think there are artists that share your outlook?

CRANE: In making fancy books?

SPURGEON: Artists that you think generally understand where you're coming from.

CRANE: It's kind of a high and low end thing for me. I appreciate a lot of work going into a book. At the same time, I don't need a lot of work going into it. All the work in the world isn't going to make a good story... it's not going to make a bad story good.

It's a learnable skill. Making a beautiful book is a learnable skill. Arguably writing a story is a learnable skill, but it's a lot harder and takes a lot more work to learn. Whereas making a good book is just a matter of doing this, this, this and this, and your book will be attractive. At the end of the day -- I hate that expression -- I think I value it but don't require a perfectly made book. I think that's probably what I mean. But it's something I do for all my work.

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SPURGEON: How do you feel about the book-centric part of comics publishing?

CRANE: I don't know anything about that world. There's a lot of manga, soap operas for teenage girls to read. I can see a market for that, but it's not something I'm interested in myself. You could get a book deal if you were going to write popular fiction, Michael Crichton-type stuff. If you can write that stuff decently, it seems there's a market. But I'm just not interested, so I haven't had much overlap with that market.

SPURGEON: There's an impulse in comics where the focus is on making comics, and let's see what happens, whereas other artists may work on securing a deal and then doing the comic -- I don't want to bust on one or the other.

CRANE: I'll happily bust on one or the other. [Spurgeon laughs] Telling stories that someone thinks are going to sell, unless they're real to you, is bullshit. And I think the stories will ring false because of it. I bet what's his face, the guy who wrote Red October?

SPURGEON: Tom Clancy.

CRANE: I bet Tom Clancy really fucking likes writing political intrigue thrillers. They're popular -- not that I like reading them -- because in a perfect world he would write these books. I think that's why they're successful. Someone who would prefer to write soap opera having to write a political thriller, it would probably ring false or at least not have that same level of excitement that Tom Clancy is supposed to have. I like using these shitty examples, because I think I'm talking more in popular success than critical success. I don't know why, exactly. [laughs] I guess I'm saying that if I'm ever popularly successful, I'd prefer for it to be something I'm interested in writing rather than something that can sell.

I would personally loathe working for a book company, because with Fantagraphics I can do anything. Anything! Anything! And also I don't want to deal with an editor who doesn't know anything. Prose has grammar, at its bottom this whole set of rule where you can say, "This sentence is not formed correctly." With comics there's not even that. There are so few people that aren't cartoonists that can speak the grammar of comics -- and they're not editors. Except for Chris Duffy. He'd be a great editor at a book company. He's a great editor at Nickelodeon.

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SPURGEON: Is Chris hands-on?

CRANE: He's really hands-on. Except for the fact that he doesn't smoke cigars, he is that cigar-chomping editor that's like, "Kids, you need to pump it up. You need a fart joke in panel three." [Spurgeon laughs] He's seriously hands-on. The thing is, he is always right. It's awesome.

That kind of thing is rare in any medium, and much, much more rare in comics. There aren't any editors I would trust like Chris Duffy. So what it would be is people who are concerned whether or not the book will sell. I say this based on my limited experience in the book world/corporate world. It usually seems to end up being "What can we sell?" "What can we get sued for?" "What's going to be a problem?" Instead of saying, "What's the best thing about the work?" Fantagraphics actually does that -- they put the work first. It's amazing.

I don't know if you knew this: when we first talked about doing Clouds Above the way I wanted to paste the book was one panel per spread -- remember how The Shortcut was one panel per spread?

SPURGEON: Sure.

CRANE: Kim said, "Okay." It would have been a 450-page book. He was okay with that. The only reason it is like it is now is because when I got the proofs for the 450-page book it read differently in color than in black and white. The pacing slowed down because of the color. It's all theory, but I think there's more... your eye stays on the panel longer because of the color. The panel has more impact -- it feels like you spend more time there. It has the same effect I feel. I feel it had more impact. But it was entirely my choice, and I made that choice right before the book went to print. And they were cool with it. And that's awesome.

I respect that in a publisher because I was that way as a publisher. The work is the most important thing, and we'll suffer anything else. Why be involved in an art medium if that's not going to be the attitude? I think art comes much before commerce. If people like it, then that's a bonus. [laughs] And of course, if people don't like it, then stop publishing it. That's fine, too. That's acceptable. But I don't think publishing an abridged version of it, an altered version of it, that's altered for an imagined consumer's response to it, is a good idea. And I feel like the major book companies are like that all over. So I would never want to deal with that world.

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SPURGEON: It sounds like you're pretty happy where you are.

CRANE: I couldn't be happier. Just somebody publishing it is a bonus already. It's like I make $2000 a book every time I put one out because I'm not paying for the printing. [laughter]

SPURGEON: So the French-language market will see the Dargaud book soon [it was published mid-April 2007], and we'll see the next issue of Uptight in San Diego?

CRANE: Yeah, definitely. I'm getting Uptight off no later than the 25th of June, and then I'll work on screenprints for the next month and then there's San Diego. So I'll have some new screenprints and I'll have a new book. I'm doing a postcard set for Chronicle. It's 30 of my prints in a little booklet. I'll have a box or two to sell at San Diego. I think maybe I'll have the journal I'm doing for them, too. A whole bunch of crap. New crap.

*****

* the new book
* the cartoonist, at the 2006 MoCCA Festival
* one of the chapter-break style big panels from Dans les nuages
* a sequence of panels from The Clouds Above stacked on top of one another
* a page from Uptight #2 featuring not a six-panel but nine-panel grid
* a page from Uptight #2 that breaks from the six-panel grid
* cover image from Uptight #1 that I really liked
* piece of art sold on Comics Art Collective as a stand-alone illustration, although I think it may be the panel from the short story "The Hand of Gold"
* image from Last Lonely Saturday
* image from Col-Dee
* black and white image from The Clouds Above


*****

Dans les nuages, Dargaud, 220505922X (ISBN), 2007, 13 Euros.
The Clouds Above, Fantagraphics, softcover, 280 pages, 1560976276 (ISBN), September 2005, $18.95.
Uptight, Fantagraphics, comic book series.
The Last Lonely Saturday, softcover, 80 pages, 1560977434 (ISBN), August 2006, $8.

*****
 
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