Some of your stories are more blatantly cinematic, and there has to be some sort of way in which the instinct for knowing what the next panel is gonna look like is similar to knowing what the next frame is gonna be for a movie. What movies were important to you in developing your artistic style or on a personal level?
It’s funny, like, if I go back over my whole life and look at movies I was excited about, I can remember how meaningful they were to me at the time, but it doesn’t really have the same impact on me now. Like, I couldn’t sit through Star Wars at this point in my life, but there were many years in my life when that was a big deal to me. I think when I was a teenager I got really excited by seeing Fellini movies, which I knew nothing about but kind of stumbled upon and thought, rightfully, that they were incredible. And it’s awkward to talk about now, but I was really into Woody Allen when I was a teenager. To see someone like Woody Allen at a certain point in my life was really exciting and interesting to me. Most of it I cannot watch anymore—I cringe, and it’s all filtered through bad news stories and impersonations that comedians have done. When I was a kid, I thought Manhattan was the greatest movie in the world, and now it’s really weird for me to watch him kissing [teenage] Mariel Hemingway and making all the jokes about, “Let’s hope the cops don’t bust in on us!”
I’m always envious of people who always had cool taste and like, stick to their guns. Like, I love the idea that there’s like, at this point, gray-haired, old, chubby guys walking around New York who loved the Ramones the minute they came out and still love the Ramones more than anything else. I don’t really have a lot of that in my life, so in recent years it’s been harder for me to get really excited about movies. I just feel like, in general, the industry has been pushed to the extremes of super expensive and super cheap, without this middle ground that I used to love. Modest and independent cinema has really kind of evaporated. That movie Margaret of [Kenneth Lonergan’s] was incredible, and I love his cut of it more than anything else. And then for me to read about how much hell it was for that to even exist—I think that’s really depressing, that something that is so indisputably great and has great commercial actors in it and should relate to most humans who’ve lived and yet it’s this obscure, difficult art piece that people want to tamper with. It’s really hard to deal with.
Movies like Margaret are often held to this standard of realism that makes people go, “People don’t talk like that in real life!” Do you find that the same is ever said of your work? Is it subject to that?
I think you sort of can set yourself up for that, especially in a time when we’re so immersed in superhero and crime genres. Any kind of art that seems to be just about normal people, it’s judged less by how good of a work of art it is, and more by how much the critic thinks that that is true to life. Which, you know, I think might be why something like Boyhood was so hugely praised, whereas something like Margaret was a little unfairly marginalized. There were people who said, “OK, well, I don’t relate to these characters,” or, “I think the way they speak is off from real-life” as opposed to saying, “Is what’s being expressed in it—is the emotional content true to life?” You can just look on Youtube and see clips into people’s real life very easily, so I’m actually more excited by that feeling of, I’m being immersed completely in this one guy’s view of the world. But, obviously, I get more excited talking about other people’s work than my own.
It’s strange to me that when I’m out meeting readers face to face, some of the things that come up most often have to do with reality, and my relation to the stories, and it’s like, there’s criticism if a plot turn or a story line doesn’t quite seem true to life, and there’s interest in how anything in that story pertains to my real life. I’ve literally had exchanges with people who—and they weren’t asking with cheerful looks on their faces—were opening up to certain panels and lines and saying, “Do you agree with this? Like, I know it’s a character, but you wrote it, so do you…” You know?
I don’t need to like the person who made the thing in order to like the thing!
I am really happy for the new generation of cartoonists who are coming up now, because they seem to be much more well-adjusted, happy people with diverse interests and active social lives. It’s sort of like, there’s some line of demarcation between cartoonists who like to dance and do karaoke, and then ones who would never in a million years do that, and I think it’s really fortunate for the younger cartoonists who are in that happier group because it will really help them as professional artists. There used to be a time when, if there was an artist like Todd Solondz or Robert Crumb, you sensed they were kind of this grumpy, eccentric…and that was kind of the appeal. I feel like people have really turned against that and really want to be friends with the artist and they want them to be fun people.
Even like, late-night hosts, are like happy and approachable-seeming and not bitter.
That’s right. I’m sure if now you polled most people, “Would you rather watch Jimmy Fallon or David Letterman?” David Letterman would totally lose at this point, like, “Remember when there used to be these grumpy cranks on TV?” That’s basically gone from TV now, no one supports that, which is terrible for people like me and my friends, ’cause probably, if I had my choice, I wouldn’t do any promotion, I wouldn’t go on a book tour at all. Whereas I think there are other cartoonists who love it, they get through the horrible, lonely process of making the work so they can get out there, and you know, pile in the car with their friends and meet people and go out and sing and dance!
That’s exactly what they do.
Well, it seems like it!
Do you care to name any of the newer generation of cartoonists who you like or recommend?
Sure! And when I say stuff like that, I don’t want it to seem like I’m shaking my head in disapproval at it. It’s with great envy. I really wish, if I could have control over the universe, that I was a young cartoonist today, rather than 20 years ago, for a lot of reasons. I think one of the great things [now is that], making comics certainly has less of a stigma attached to it, but also there is some money that can be made, and it’s not just a crazy job for obsessives—it’s a legitimate job for some people. It’s opened it up to a much wider range of talent. There’s a much broader range of people who, maybe as teenagers think, Hey, maybe I’ll become a cartoonist. So there’s a lot of work now that’s totally different from stuff that happened 10 years ago, coming from a lot of different influences and life experiences. It’s an era of comics I honestly thought we’d never get to, so that’s great.
I really like Vanessa Davis, who is very inspirational to me in terms of letting the feelings and ideas flow into the work naturally, rather than obsessively doing it in this very rigid, building-block kind of way that I was trained to make comics. Like, she doesn’t do panel borders, [it’s] kind of more like sketchbook pages. Lisa Hanawalt is great. I think she’s one of the people who has successfully translated her vision into entertainment and TV. [BoJack Horseman] really seems like her thing, which is kind of amazing. Who else? There are so many. There’s someone who I know nothing about whose work I found online, and they just go by the initials G.G., and they’re a pretty mysterious person from what I can tell, but the work is really beautiful and I will be very surprised if it’s not, if they want it to be, widely published in the near future. It’s so well done.
In 32 Stories, the collection of your Optic Nerve comics, there’s a really funny rejection letter from Chris Oliveros of [comics publisher] Drawn & Quarterly. How did you feel when you were rejected from Drawn & Quarterly, and how did you keep going and keep submitting to them?
You know, I think that when I was a teenager trying to become a cartoonist, the world of publishing and media and all that was a lot more mysterious and seemed a lot more impenetrable. Because of that, I really approached it with every expectation that I would be rejected, that it would be this long process of trying and kinda picking myself up and dusting off and trying again, that was the attitude I approached it with. When I got Chris’s letter, I was so excited to get a letter from him that I wasn’t crushed that he said he didn’t want to publish my work. I was like, “He wrote to me!” So I didn’t feel that it was a setback or anything. I took it as encouragement that he even bothered to write. It was helpful to approach things with the idea that, It’s not gonna happen overnight, this is gonna be a long learning process and if I’m lucky I’ll make little incremental steps. I kind of had the expectation that, well, maybe I’ll get a drawing in the school newspaper, and then maybe I’ll be able to do a drawing for the local free weekly paper or something like that, but I never thought that what I’m doing is so great that it should be published by Drawn & Quarterly right now, and, even when I got to the point where I was sending stuff, I had been putting out mini comics by myself for many years. There was a part of me, with sending that to Chris, was like, “Well, maybe he’ll really like it…” My first contact with anybody in the comics business was with other artists who I was basically writing to for advice. Sometimes I’d write with very specific questions about how they did something.
I keep coming back to this, about how hard it is to formulate succinct advice to young people, especially now that I have daughters. You want to build up their confidence and say, “Go conquer the world,” or something like that, but I also think it’s helpful to approach something like art with kind of a humility, and a sense that you’re not great right out of the box, and that’s OK. That’s how it’s supposed to be. I got a lot of criticism early on, and almost all of it I have found to be really constructive. Maybe it wasn’t intended to be constructive, but I took it as such. I think it’s nice if someone respects whatever their endeavor is, whether it’s dance or art or stand-up comedy, to not assume that they’re gonna be an overnight sensation, that it’s this great craft that takes a lot of hard work to get good at.
There’s such a focus now on critical reception and feedback and everything like that, but I get the feeling, like, for some people, their art doesn’t exist until they’ve posted it and start getting likes, as if the process of creating art wasn’t very satisfying in itself: They didn’t quite know what to think of it, so now they’re sending it out in the world and waiting to see what people say about it. And I don’t think that’s sustainable. I think you’re gonna crack. I think if you’re lucky enough to get some success and get published or something like that, I think that, and this is for me, an ongoing struggle, you can have so many lucky breaks. I was so lucky to be picked up by Drawn & Quarterly before I was even ready, and to be able to work with someone like Chris and make all these friends and to have all these wonderful things that other people would be very envious of. At the heart of it is, really, a lot of me always trying to enjoy the day-to-day drudgery of the work. I guess I’m somewhat spoiled because I’ve had sort of an easy progression of my career, so I don’t run around holding a positive review I got or something like that, thinking that it validates me, or Now my work is good. You can’t keep going, especially as more pressures build, if you don’t have some pleasure in creating the work. Sometimes it’s really challenging to work in isolation and not get feedback and not be encouraged and not get applauded. You have to find something in yourself to motivate that, and I think most of the great work has been created that way. Not like, I’ll throw out a little crumb and everyone applauds it and I’ll throw out the next one, but like someone locks themselves in their room and writes an amazing novel.
You said sometimes you draw a celebrity you didn’t really like, and then you’re like, “They’re not that bad!”
I’m very susceptible to that. There was a period where [I was drawing] the movie review column in The New Yorker, like, “OK, this week we have a movie called The Mexican, starring Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt and it’s an action movie, OK, do it!” And I’d do it, and I remember feeling like, if at that moment, that week when I was working on it, if any of those actors would have walked by, I would have been like, “Hey, Julia!” Like they were someone I knew, and even [know] now. Sometimes I get kind of mixed up like, “Did I know that person? Or did I just draw them?” I have a hard time connecting directly to people, in terms of conversation and getting to know someone in real life, and for whatever mental defect that I have, I feel a really strong connection to whatever it is that I draw, whatever I’m working on. It could be random celebrities, it could be these made-up characters in my books, or buildings that I’m drawing, architecture and things like that and—I don’t know. But it really does feel like this sort of—it’s gross to use the word intimacy, but in the most literal sense of that, it does feel like some really strong connection to that when I’m focusing that closely on drawing something on paper.
I don’t know how to do what you do, but I feel like it must humanize someone while also making them more beautiful.
This is something that used to bother me, because I grew up really idolizing underground cartoonists and outsider artists, and I was sort of afflicted with the curse of prettiness, like, [my work] was like really cute and clean and everything like that. I’ve since come to terms with it, but I have actually had art directors say, “Oh you’re great for this job ’cause you can make ugly stuff look pretty.” I sort of used to bristle at it, but I kind of know what they mean, and I kind of enjoy exploring that now.
A lot of the things I’ve struggled with over the whole process of making comics since I was a teenager has been trying to find out what is really my own style, what are my own opinions, what are my own thoughts, because I was so deeply influenced by other artists. I mean, it’s an ongoing process. There was a period where everybody was saying, “He’s just copying Jaime Hernandez,” and then people were saying, “He’s just copying Dan Clowes” and every time one of those things came out, it was like this total shock like, “I am? Really?” And then it was like, “Oh shit, I am!” And so, overall, in terms of how I draw and how I write and characters I focus on, I’ve really been trying—especially with Killing and Dying—to hopefully dig into stuff that’s my own.
I remember that people [told Dan Clowes], “I grew up in Philadelphia, you got it so right!” And he’s like, “No, this isn’t supposed to take place anywhere.”
I’ve been hesitant to say, ’cause a lot of people have been asking, “Is there some sort of thing that connects all these stories in Killing and Dying?” and to me one of them is that they all take place in some sort of mutated version of the California towns I grew up in, but at the same time I was hesitant to be too explicit about it because I have met people who said, “Oh, man, I grew up on Long Island, and you totally nailed that dismal, suburban atmosphere.” So, OK, that’s good, if that’s what you’re thinking of when you read it, then that’s better than me saying, “No, no, no, your personal connection to this is wrong, and it actually is in Emoryville, California.”
I felt like the girl in Killing and Dying looked so different from other characters of yours.
That’s good! I’ve seen people in real life where I’m like, That’s kind of the girl that I was meaning to draw, like I can think of the real-world counterpart to what that drawing is supposed to represent. I struggled with that. I want it to be sympathetic, but also realistic, and I thought, you know, I don’t want to do—and this is something I’ve been guilty of, too—but you know you see so much of this thing, like, “Hey, here’s this character who’s a misfit, and they’re played by a gorgeous Hollywood actress!” You know? The world is superficial! People are mean to people who aren’t as pretty as others, especially children, and so maybe she would look, somehow, different than, you know, someone I would draw for an advertising job or something like that. I have sketchbooks where she goes through this evolution, where she starts out looking sort of like Daria or Enid [Coleslaw from Daniel Clowes’s Ghost World] or something, um, like, OK she has glasses. Then I started reworking the drawing and thinking more about people I’d known and seen, and when I arrived at the design of her that exists, she felt more alive to me. I don’t know, my heart seemed to open up a little more to the character in some way—she seemed like a real person that I actually kind of felt protective of, which is really strange. I normally don’t really buy it when authors say, “Well these characters jumped off the page and wrote themselves!” Because that’s not really the case in this, but I did have that same overly human interaction with a drawing on the paper, where I just felt like, Oh god, it pains me to draw her going through this experience.”
Yeah! Well imagining it now, I think that the bags under her eyes stick out to me the most. You said it was unique to go through that with her, but do you feel, I don’t know, pity, or annoyed, when someone is less likable?
Since having kids and kind of seeing the world through the lens of being a father–and also, now that my oldest daughter’s in school, she forces me to interact with a lot of other adults that I never would have on my own, like other parents of friends of hers—I just feel I have such a more complicated view of humanity now. When I was a young, single guy, like, people either sucked, or they were awesome. And that was it. I loved some people, and everybody else could go to hell, you know? And I think now I have really complicated feelings about the average person that I meet. I realize that’s actually a really useful thing as a writer, to try and bring into your work. To take that feeling of, This guy’s kind of an asshole, but I sort of feel sorry for him, and I sort of relate to him, and to try to impose that on these fictional characters, has been a fun challenge for me. I realize that in some ways, getting married and moving to New York and having kids was really great for me as an artist, because prior to that I was living in a very small bubble of self-sufficient young guy in Berkeley, California with some cartoonist friends, and it’s really interesting now to have people in my life that, in some ways and in some bad moments, are completely reprehensible, unforgivable, but on the other hand I’m like, “Well, but…” And that sort of, “Well, but…” thing is something I didn’t have when I was younger.