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CR Sunday Interview: Ben Catmull
posted October 13, 2013



imageGhosts And Ruins, veteran comics-maker Ben Catmull's exploration of homes and horror and landscapes and things that are absent, is as handsome a release from an alt-publishing house -- in this case, Fantagraphics -- as we're likely to see all year. It is sleek beast of a book. Catmull is a painstaking artist and I think a comics lifer. He speaks in terms of stories to be told rather than projects to be managed. While it can also be enjoyed as an art book, Ghosts And Ruins is definitely comics, albeit on the Edward Gorey end of things rather than the Will Eisner: its mini-stories build out of a series of images that have to be vanquished and re-imagined rather than referenced via their close proximity. I would gladly read a dozen books just like it, but I suspect Catmull has different plans, the same way that Ghosts And Ruins proved to be a break from Monster Parade. I'm grateful he made some time for this interview during a spooky Fall season. I rearranged a pair of questions and added about five words in what follows for the sake of clarity and flow. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: Ben, the last time we talked was a while ago in support of a preview for Monster Parade. That was a very ambitious solo-anthology with overlapping serials. Were you happy with the way that series turned out? What kept you from immediately moving forward and continuing each of the series? Is there one of the three you regret losing out on most?

BEN CATMULL: I was happy with the way Monster Parade came out, but the lack of response to the book reinforced the Sisyphean feeling of making more comics. I had immediately started on Monster Parade #2 after #1 came out. I had an entire story penciled out, but when it came to inking it I couldn't get it to look right. I re-inked the first few pages about five or six times over and was just unhappy with my inability to pull off the style I was going for. I was getting increasingly anxious about putting so much time into just one comic that would probably just end up pleasing a handful of comics people while not making any money, so I decided to put it off. Instead, I decided to do a stand-alone book that was a distillation of things I love, thought I could do well, and finish in a reasonable amount of time. I was thinking of returning to Monster Parade, but lately I've had other story ideas pop into my head that feel more worthwhile.

SPURGEON: You've joked a few times in public about your relative lack of speed. Did that play a role at all in moving away from a comics serial? Does it play a role more generally in terms of what projects you pick? Is there one element in the process that is particularly time-consuming for you?

CATMULL: Sort of. I was initially motivated by the idea of creating a substantial looking book in a reasonable amount of time. Monster Parade and Paper Theater are thin books that look like the result of dabbling. But the illustrated storybook format of Ghosts and Ruins also gave me the opportunity to fully flex my drawing and painting muscles in a way that doesn't normally fit with comics. The technique became so time consuming that I gave up on the "in a reasonable amount of time" part. But this isn't a move away from comics. It's just scratching a particular itch and a way to show an aspect of my skills that are hard to show in comics. I still want to go back to comics.

Writing and drawing are both slow for me. Inking and painting are the easier parts that I can plow through regardless of my mood or energy level.

SPURGEON: You know, Ben, I have no idea where making comics and books exists on the spectrum of all the things that you do. How is the bulk of your professional time spent? Are you doing things like Ghosts and Ruins as a sideline to another job? Is it hard for you to find time in which to work on projects like this one?

CATMULL: I've mostly made a living doing computer character animation, but I'm trying to figure out other ways. Not only do I not have a strong love of computer animation, but that skill has become a lot less rare since I started. A lot of that work is starting to be shipped overseas, too. Right now I'm taking an extended break to try various projects develop other skills that will hopefully lead to another way of making a living. But chances are I'll just end up crawling back to animation.


SPURGEON: [laughs] Now, is most of the conceptual work done for something like this latest work before you begin the physical work, or does a book begin to take shape as you work on it? Is it about executing an idea of developing one?

CATMULL: I haven't settled on a standard method of writing for myself. But for Ghosts and Ruins I came up with a theme and format that gave me the freedom to make it up as I went along.

SPURGEON: I don't ever ask this kind of question because I'm pretty lousy with being able to tell just from looking: what did you use to make this project? What media are we looking at here?

CATMULL: The surface is a material called Claybord. It is masonite with a layer of uninked -- white -- scratchboard-esque clay material. The scratchboard layer is really smooth and tough. I do the drawing on regular paper and then I do a transfer rubbing onto the claybord. Then I do a dense, hatch-marked, line drawing with a uniball pen. I use a wet paint brush to smear and gray out the line drawing. From there I can scratch with a scratch board tool, add tones with a watercolor brush and uniball ink, and add black with the uniball pen -- in no particular order. I can add whites, grays, and blacks at any point in the process.


SPURGEON: The overriding memory I have of your book when I'm away of it is these contrasting textures, both in terms of the way light and shadow plays across an image but also in tactile sense, or imagined tactile sense. Was that a concern of your while you were making the images, that they have this specific look and feel to them? How would you describe them sensually?

CATMULL: Yes, I'm very much interested in conveying visceral/tactile details, atmosphere, and a sense of place. I like the way your mind wants to create stories when it sees space divided by architecture. Especially old buildings with a lot if history. I think old, abandoned architecture is the closest thing we have in real life to ghosts.

I tried to use texture and lighting to make the spaces as tangible as possible and then make the spaces be the story. When you look at an old, abandoned building, it's static, and your imagination is engaged with what might have happened there in the past. So I tried to capture that with this book. That's why it's mostly static images with simple text hinting at their history.


SPURGEON: This is a book that could also be characterized as horror -- probably primarily so for some people, and I think for obvious reasons: the mood, mostly, but also the subject matter. Is that how you conceive of it? I've also seen it described as a ghost story.

CATMULL: It is horror, but that's a very broad term. It's also ghosts, nostalgia, and architecture.

SPURGEON: Is it difficult to portray horror imagery when there's a sequential element because of the control the reader never relinquishes? Do you think comics works better with unsettling images rather than frightening ones? Are there cartoonists or artists that you think are masterful in terms of the kind of effect you're trying for here?

CATMULL: Well, you definitely can't do a jump scare like you can with movies.


CATMULL: But I think all other aspects of horror are perfectly doable in comics. Renée French and Charles Burns have mastered creepy atmosphere and biologic horror. Richard Sala is the master of recapturing the haunting atmosphere of old movies and campfire stories. Those are the obvious answers off the top of my head. And of course there's Edward Gorey's haunted melancholy and nostalgia with deadpan humor.

SPURGEON: You said of Monster Parade that you were less inspired by older comics and illustration work than by newer works, works by many of your peers. Is that the still the case? Because I think most people might look at the structure of this work and its tone and think of, as you just mentioned, Edward Gorey. Is there someone informing this work, someone the rest of us might not see?

CATMULL: I'm constantly searching for art, comics, and movies that inspire me and I try to absorb as much as possible. With Ghosts and Ruins -- and "Civilization Studies Illustrated" [from Monster Parade #1] -- I was itching to jump into a project and finish it relatively quickly. That abbreviated semi-story structure was a really fun and practical way to do that but it also gave those pieces a bit of a Gorey feel. I do love Gorey so I guess I deserve that comparison. But I'm also really in love with the textures and atmosphere of old black and white photography and movies. That's near impossible to capture in drawings but I'm still trying.

imageSPURGEON: The text effects strike me as interesting in two ways, and I wonder if you could comment on those two observations or talk about your choices with the text in general. First, I thought the relatively straight-forward typeface to be an interesting choice over hand-lettering in terms of how we might see this book. Second, I liked the effect of the faded titles on pages subsequent to the first one, and wondered how much of that was intentional or just a happy accident.

CATMULL: I think it was Jacob Covey's Beasts books that convinced me to go with simple, classy, computer lettering.

The faded text was deliberate. I figured the format was a little odd so I wanted it to be clear that a particular page was still referring to a house that the reader just looked a few pages ago.

My editor, Eric Reynolds, chose the text on the cover, with my approval of course.

SPURGEON: Why of all the stories does "Wandering Smoke" lack accompanying text?

CATMULL: I liked the idea of showing a visual mystery with no explanation and varying the pacing with a quiet moment.

SPURGEON: There are so many books out right now, and I wondered considering where you are in your career and the painstaking element of how you put work to paper, is it ever frustrating for you? Do you ever feel lost in this wave of quality books?

CATMULL: I don't think I'll have good idea of how well the book is doing until after the holidays so I don't know if it's "lost" yet. Popular media has become such a firehose of endless stuff that it doesn't feel worth it for me to make art unless I can make something substantial that people would want to own for a long time. The other quality books out there are keeping the industry healthy and hopefully creating an audience for more nice books.


SPURGEON: You thanked the late cartoonist and publisher Dylan Williams first in your acknowledgments. It's been about two years since his passing. Is there a certain element to his personality and professional make-up that you've found you particularly miss moving forward?

CATMULL: Dylan was like an art and culture historian. If you were interested in exploring odd sub genres and esoteric nooks of culture he would enthusiastically explore and share it with you. He was fascinated with obsession. He preferred art by artists who let themselves be governed by their obsessions and compulsions or were somewhat broken or nutty. This meant more to him than polish and calculated mainstream entertainment. His view on art influenced my own artistic development starting from an early age when we were both part of the Puppy Toss mini comics collective in the early '90s. His philosophy also carried over to the way he related to his artist friends. He was interested in his friends' interests and obsessions in a deep and genuine way that I have learned since his passing is incredibly rare. Since about '98-'99 we had been having long phone conversations about once a week about art, comics, movies etc. For a time I thought we were best phone buddies but I found out he had the same relationship with a lot of people.

Now that he's gone I feel like he tricked me into thinking that I'm much more interesting person that I really am. I can't say where my artistic development would be without him, but I do know that would be very different.


SPURGEON: Someone mentioned on Twitter that this was the most beautiful book they bought at this year's Comic-Con International. And it is a very striking book. Can you talk about some of the input you had into its design, how you wanted it to look?

CATMULL: The cover art was something that I came up with as temporary art in case the designers at Fantagraphics were busy. But since I handed in finished art, they just changed the font and added the spine and went with it. For the size of the book, I asked Fanta to just copy the [Floyd] Gottfredson Mickey Mouse books. The nice cover stock was Eric's idea. For the text and layout inside, I sent Fanta Photoshop files roughly indicating the layout because that's the only software I know and then they did a cleaned up nicer version with the right software. For the images, I don't know how to calibrate computer images for print but I do know that what looks right on a computer doesn't look right on paper. So I sent Fanta raw, unaltered scans and let the experts fix it.

SPURGEON: Prose, comics, what is the last great book you read? Why that one?

CATMULL: The last book I finished was 1Q84 by [novelist Haruki] Murakami. I really enjoyed it even though it felt like half as much stuff happened in twice as many pages compared to his other books. It's the third book of his I've read and I'm starting to get the sense of a man with OCD who cant't stop polishing his car, but still I love the dream logic and the way he creates a vivid sense of place with thorough descriptions. A friend of mine recently convinced me to read Cloud Atlas and it drove me nuts how infrequently the writer described what anything looked like.

I'm going to ramble on because Comics. [Spurgeon laughs] I recently read The Making Of by Brecht Evens. It's kind of mind-blowing how effective his unique vocabulary is. Chris Wright's Black Lung. I don't know how to say smart things about it but I love it. Ditto Lilli Carré's Heads or Tails. Oji Suzuki's A Single Match has been next to my drawing desk for perusal for a while because he achieved a melancholy, dream-like quality that I aspire to.

SPURGEON: You said once that as you got older you minded less the projects that take a long time. At some point, though, I imagine that like a lot of artists you begin to have a firmer sense of your own mortality. Do you think in terms of specific projects you'd like to get done, if only to fulfill certain stages of your life and artistic development?

CATMULL: My skills are never good enough to carry out the things I wish I could do so I just hobble forward and hope that I can create a few worthwhile things.


* Ghosts And Ruins, Fantagraphics, hardcover, 88 pages, 1606996789, 9781606996782, August 2013, $22.99.
* Ben Catmull
* Ben Catmull Tumblr
* Ben Catmull Mostly Abandoned Blog


* cover to the new work
* photo of Catmull by I think me; if it's really old, I apologize
* assorted images from Ghosts And Ruins throughout except for seized image of text; this includes the image below