Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Periodical Lives! Grotesque #3, Delphine #4, Uptight #2

Rob reviews the latest issues of a variety of series from Fantagraphics: UPTIGHT #3, by Jordan Crane; DELPHINE #4, by Richard Sala; and GROTESQUE #3, by Sergio Ponchione. The latter two comics are from the Ignatz line and co-published by Igort's Coconiono Press.

The recent news that Diamond won't be listing comics that fail to meet a certain threshold of orders had an immediate and deleterious effect on a number of well-regarded comics. Series like INJURY, CRICKETS and OR ELSE have been cancelled (some more directly related to the change than others), which is unfortunate for a scene that built up its following through serialized comics. Not every cartoonist draws a full-length graphic novel, and this really hurts a lot of those artists who specialize in short stories. Thankfully, Fantagraphics is still chugging along in producing actual comic books, even if current length and format is perhaps a bit different than the 90s.

Jordan Crane's UPTIGHT series is a lo-fi throwback of a series printed on cheap paper. This issue starts not one but two serials, done in completely different styles. "Vicissitude" is a typically downbeat relationship comic from Crane, who seems to specialize in the depiction of doomed couples. It's about a mechanic who starts to (correctly) suspect that his girlfriend is cheating on him. Crane's line is elegant but unfussy, with slightly scratchy character designs that have a grace and fluidity to them reminiscent of Jaime Hernandez. The way Crane draws Peter, the woman's secret lover, is remarkable: he's all smugness and smirks, with a cigarette cocked in the corner of his mouth. Crane's cover perfectly describes the dilemma of Dee, the girlfriend: she's frumpy and tired but also a cauldron of unfulfilled sexual desires--but sating those desires is bringing about a horrible sense of guilt.

Crane's other story in the issue is "Freeze Out", which stars his characters from his book THE CLOUDS ABOVE. This is Crane as child-book author, completely eschewing spotting blacks or adding any greyscaling. The story's about a boy and his talking cat getting in trouble with a friend in school. On the way to the principal's office, they stop off to help the school handyman in attempting to fix a cooling system. What they find is something blocking the vents, whose true motive are hidden until it's far too late. Even in this children's story with moments of slapstick, there are a lot of dark moments--especially the ending. The character design here is a bit simpler and more exaggerated than "Vicissitude", but both stories share a cartoony sense of character design dominated by Crane's elegant line. Both stories seem perfectly suited for this format.

GROTESQUE has been one of the most playful entries in the underappreciated Ignatz line. Sergio Ponchionne has a very "American" quality to his line in terms of his line (thick and rubbery) and character design (a series of homages to masters like EC Segar and more contemporary figures like Charles Burns). Issue #2, the first part of the "Cryptic City" storyline, introduced a city where citizens were under the heel of two corrupt barons and forced to pay for emotions. A Crumb-like figure named Professor Hackensack was charged by the god figure of GROTESQUE, named Mr. O'Blique, to set things right. Issue #2 unfurled a city where 1984-style paranoia, fairy tales, religious iconography, Lovecraftian figures, gothic settings and detective novel cliches all inhabited the same space. That heady stew was reduced to what amounted to a series of chase scenes in #3 that surprisingly resolved the story in a fairly pat (if weird) manner. The story was still enjoyable, but not quite the visual brain scrambler that the first two issues of this series presented. That said, Ponchionne's sight gags in this issue were something to behold, like a dead baron's tombstone growing arms and legs and coming after his brothers. What I liked best about the issue was that the focus of Hackensack's quest, a skull containing the Meaning of Life, proved to just be a McGuffin. I will assume that the fourth issue of this series will pick up on the events of the cliffhanger from issue #1; I'll be curious to see how Ponchionne is able to tie all of these story threads together in a way that is satisfying.

Reading Sala's DELPHINE has been a somewhat frustrating experience. Sala's comics are so tense that it's difficult to wait for another chapter to spring up. This was certainly true of his stories that ran in ZERO ZERO, for example. Issue #4 of DELPHINE was the conclusion of the series, and it certainly did not disappoint. This comic has been a warped retelling of the Snow White fairy tale, this time from the perspective of the prince trying to find his fair maiden and rescue her from the clutches of the wicked queen. Sala processeed that idea through a young college grad coming across a town where the discovery that Things Are Not What They Seem quickly cycled through to Waking Nightmare. The reader got some key flashbacks in this issue that revealed a bit more about Delphine's past (filtered through the hero's dreams and ending badly). Those dreams may have seemed like mere infodump but the structure they represented was key to understanding the end of the issue.

Sala is probably my favorite horror/suspense artist because of the scratchy, spontaneous nature of his design. There's definitely an EC influence there in terms of the design of his monsters and grotesques, but with a much freer and more playful line. The casual nature of the dialogue is another Sala trademark, emphasized when the protagonist is exasperated by the weird speech of those he encounters in the bizarre hamlet he traveled to. It's interesting to see which elements of the Snow White story that this series picked up on, especially the way in which an obsession with the ideals of sexual purity warped an entire community. In this case, Delphine was far from pure, but her evil step-mother reclaimed her purity in a disturbing fashion...and her presence attracted others. Casting the evil stepmother/witch as a Bible-thumper was clever, especially in how religious fervor is conflated with the effects of being under a spell, but Sala was wise not to overdo this aspect of the story. The undertone of this book was the desperate quality possessed by the protagonist, an obsessiveness that put him squarely in harm's way and ultimately sealed his fate. There's a fake-out of an ending that's followed by the real fate of the protagonist, who looks mournfully out towards the audience with his one good eye after being transformed into a monstrous dwarf. DELPHINE benefitted from the Ignatz format: big pages that let the backgrounds breathe, nice paper, and creepy one-tone color. It was a perfect format for a fairy tale gone horribly wrong.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Beginnings & Endings: Mome 15

Rob reviews the fifteenth issue of MOME, edited by Eric Reynolds & Gary Groth (Fantagraphics).

MOME 15 felt like another transitional issue, given the number of serials that either ended or reached their penultimate chapter. Tim Hensley's deranged WALLY GROPIUS series wrapped up here as the titular hero was double-crossed by his would-be crush Jillian Banks in the most bizarre and hilarious manner possible. Hensley's flattened figures and John Stanley-inspired character design & color choices immediately throw a reader off-balance as they enter a carefully-crafted world with its own rigid internal logic. The most surprising aspect of this story was that there was a deeper master plot that explained some of the serial's weirder moments (like Jillian and her "father" engaging in rough sex in an earlier issue). Hensley ends it with an out-of-nowhere bit of weirdness that nonetheless touched upon a seemingly random series of bits throughout the series. Hensley's introduction to MOME in #5 was a key moment for the anthology, because he represented a level of absurdity and a cartoony sensibility that had been absent from the series. It represented MOME's first big risk and first sign that they were abandoning their more literary but mainstream model aimed at drawing in non-comics readers.

Speaking of endings, this issue featured the penultimate chapter of Paul Hornschemeier's "Life With Mr Dangerous" serial. The story had been appearing in dribs and drabs for over four years and will require a longer look once it's finally been completed. It's been a story about stasis, as the story's female protagonist feels completely stuck in her life and relationships, and explored them through her particular set of pop-culture obsessions. For Hornschemeier, the story's use of color and its formal pyrotechnics are a bit more muted than usual. This chapter revealed a pertinent bit of information about her vaguely-defined relationship with a long-distance friend, a revelation that proved to be devastating for her (portrayed in a typically emotionally distanced, slightly bumbling manner). The flatness of color and affect in this story often made it an awkward fit in MOME throughout its serialization, especially when the anthology started to go in more challenging directions. That's why I'm eager to reread the story in a different context.

Gilbert Shelton and Pic's "Last Gig in Shnagrlig" also wrapped up after a three-issue run. My distaste for Shelton's work has been recorded elsewhere, but one can't deny Shelton's talent as a cartoonist and the sheer craft on display in this story. I find the humor to be a bit corny and dated, but the influence it had on future cartoonists is undeniable. There's no question that Shelton's work ethic, caricature design and skill at depicting slapstick are all top-notch. When he plays to those strengths, the story is at its best. When he's attempting to deliver political satire, the story falls flat.

As always, series editors Eric Reynolds & Gary Groth intersperse serials with shorter pieces that are interesting in their own right but also provide a balance of color, content and approach. Andrice Arp's paintings of Japanese mythological characters were an interesting choice to kick off the issue; her unusual and curvy stylized drawings are one of the most distinctive in the world of comics, though I'm eager to see more actual comics from her. The first half of the issue is heavy on brightly-colored comics, like Sara Edward-Corbett's delightfully drawn child adventures. There's a viciousness in the way her characters interact that reminds me a bit of Steven Weissman, and a flatness to her composition that makes an interesting companion piece to the Wally Gropius stories that preceded it in this issue. Ray Fenwick's palette is more muted in one of his text/illustration pieces, a narrative that is a tutorial on a craft project involving finger and toenail clippings that exposes the neuroses of the narrator. Fenwick has been another key figure in MOME, given his unique visual approach and sardonic sense of humor. The underrated Conor O'Keefe closed out the color section with another of his Winsor McKay-inspired meditations. O'Keefe also employs a muted color palette that focuses in on dark greens as the narrator mused on ducks, water and the way nature flows.

The main events of the issue (other than Hensley's stories) were a new short story by Dash Shaw, the first part of an intriguing new serial by T. Edward Bak and a bound-in minicomic from Spanish artist Max. Shaw's "My Entire High School...Sinking Into the Sea!" is another in a series of unusual color experiments from the artist. The story is a cross between a Steve Ditko homage and the film "Titanic", as the story is otherwise self-explanatory. Shaw draws himself back in high school as it's being swept away and he's desperately trying to stay alive. Shaw bleeds color across panels in an expressionistic manner, mixing them like watercolors in a tray to evoke extremes of emotion. It's an enormously clever experiment, mixed in with Ditko-style stiff character poses and an ending that mixes the end of "Titanic" with Captain America's 60s origin story.

The first chapter of Bak's "Steller" detailed an ill-fated expedition to Kamchatka in his signature black-on-white style that mimics woodcuts. The story alternates between flashbacks to Georg Steller's education and the development of his interest in botany, mineralogy and exploration, and an eerie, visceral account of the expedition that ended his life. Bak captured the stark, alien beauty of that environment with his line drawings while alternating it with frighteningly intense but cartoony drawings that resembled cave drawings as much as they do comics. There's always a harsh but epic sweep to Bak's comics, a journey across an bleak landscape that leads to inevitable hardship. Seeing his work serialized in MOME just adds another unique approach to a deep roster.

Max's "The Confederacy of Villains" was originally printed in Spanish in 1987, and appears in MOME in its intended format. It seems to be a noir/conspiracy story involving secret cabals and Hollywood mysteries, but it's really an affectionate ode to character actors of eras gone by and a condemnation of McCarthyism. It's drawn in a bigfoot style in a minicomics format, bound into the back of the issue (a clever solution to a publishing problem) and dominated by cerulean and aubergine color tones. The story is interspersed by black & white pin-up pages of classic, villainous character actors and is the sort of obscure nugget that's distinguished MOME throughout its run.

Of the remaining stories, Noah Van Sciver's "The True Tale of the Denver Spider-Man" stood out the most. It's perhaps Van Sciver's best career effort to date, a creepy true story of a man who killed an ex-benefactor and lived in a tiny crawlspace. Van Sciver's scratchy, nervous line nicely captured the account of this killer with a sad and twisted life story. Nate Neal's "Delia's Love" is not unlike his most recent MOME contribution in that it's about a character recalling a series of seedy encounters. This story reminded me a bit of Dennis Eichorn's stuff: hard-drinking, hard-living people in the weirdest of circumstances. Neal drew his characters as slightly grotesque: lumpy, pimply, saggy and worn down by the world. What was unusual about this story was the end, where the stories told lead to a fracturing of a relationship. Finally, Robert Goodin contributed another of his folk tale adaptations that was exquisitely drawn but a bit disposable. It's a bit of pleasant fluff that doesn't detract from the issue but doesn't add much beyond a few nicely-drawn pages.

MOME seems to go through transition points every five issues or so. I suspect the next issue will be yet another changing of the guard, with a number of new artists and perhaps even some surprises along that line. The key to the anthology's continued success has been flexibility regarding its mission. It's still a place where young artists are sought out and spotlighted; the inclusion of Van Sciver this issue is a prime example of that commitment, but contributors like O'Keefe, Edward-Corbett, Laura Park, et al also demonstrate this. It's also a place where key foreign comics can find a home. For a piece like Lewis Trondheim's "At Loose Ends", MOME was a perfect home for it because it was too obscure to risk as a regular release, but it also drew big-time Trondheim fans to the anthology. Lastly, it's a place where great American cartoonists can publish their short stories, like Shelton and Jim Woodring. This variety of approaches helps keep the anthology coming out on a regular schedule (a big key in helping to drum up a regular readership) and positions it as a sort of descendant of WEIRDO and RAW. It may not represent the absolute cutting edge of comics the way that KRAMER'S ERGOT does, but it's still the widest available survey of alt-comics in publication and will be increasingly valuable in that regard as it continues to evolve.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Two and Three: Asterios Polyp

Rob reviews the long-awaited book from David Mazzucchelli, ASTERIOS POLYP (Pantheon).

David Mazzucchelli emerging with a huge, boldly original graphic novel is akin to the occasional reappearances of Thomas Pynchon in terms of it being a publishing event. He's an unusual figure in comics in that while he came out of a fine arts background, he first came to prominence as a mainstream superhero artist, illustrating Frank Miller's "Born Again" run on Daredevil as well as Batman: Year One. Then he went in a different direction, helping to adapt Paul Auster's CITY OF GLASS with Paul Karasik and then start his own groundbreaking anthology, RUBBER BLANKET. After the third issue of that series, Mazzucchelli pretty much dropped off the radar as he set to writing what was originally going to be the fourth issue of that series and instead grew in scope and ambition.

The result is ASTERIOS POLYP, a book whose scope is formally ambitious and enormously clever but whose concerns are deceptively simple. Mazzucchelli, above all else, has always been interested in exploring not just the formal aspects of comics in terms of the way a page is composed and designed, but in the very production and printing process of comics. As a result, there's a hyperawareness of the way color in particular appears and interacts with other elements on the page. Very few cartoonists really think about color as the primary way of imparting information to the reader, and doing so in a way that is not an homage to past uses of color. Chris Ware really blazed the trail in that area; indeed, much of the emotional content in his stories is modulated not by his line or dialogue but by the choice and juxtaposition of colors. Dash Shaw is currently taking color in some bold and original directions, and he noted that it's actually easier to innovate with color since it was an afterthought for so many for so long, as opposed to the weight of influence he feels from other cartoonists.

In ASTERIOS POLYP, Mazzucchelli's line is extremely simple and clear. His character design is stylized to the point of telegraphing each character's purpose in the story immediately upon introduction. Temporality, mood and character interaction are entirely dictated by the very basic colors he employs. Going back to printmaking, the basic CMYK colors are dominant in this book, as well as some of the very basic combinations of cyan, magenta, and yellow--but never black. Black, the usual cornerstone of most comics, is not at all present in the final product of this book. I don't think it's an accident that it was three colors that dominated the book; the unstated importance of three instead of two (in this case, "color" vs "black and white) is repeated throughout the book as a sort of cosmic corrective for the titular protagonist.

Mazzucchelli very carefully treads the line between innovation and wider reader appeal with this book. There's a sense that he overexplains certain aspects of his themes with his occasional use of a narrator. His archetypical use of characters flattens them emotionally, to the point where some became caricatures. There's something very cool and detached with the way he designs a page and employs color, even ones where there's a lot of drama occurring. Unlike Ware or Carol Tyler (another artist with a fine arts background), who simultaneously distance the reader with their line and use of color and draw them in with the spontaneous, organic nature of their storytelling, there's little that feels organic about ASTERIOS POLYP.

That observation is not meant to be pejorative, because further readings seem to indicate that ASTERIOS POLYP is inspired by Greek tragedy as much as anything. Such works are the wellspring for many modern character archetypes and story themes, and Mazzucchelli dips into that well both overtly and subtly. The more obvious ways in which this pops up is making the character of Greek descent, the way the tragedy of Orpheus literally becomes the wedge that drives his wife away from him through her involvement in an off-Broadway production, the way the tragedy appears as a dream sequence starring Asterios, and referencing Aristophanes in Plato's SYMPOSIUM. However, the unstated but dominant theme of the book is the hubris of its protagonist, Asterios Polyp, and the ways in which the gods chose to punish him.

The plot of the book is simple: we meet Asterios in his trashed Manhattan apartment, which is struck by lightning and burns down. He hurriedly leaves the apartment, taking only three items: his watch, a lighter and a Swiss army knife. He gets on the subway and takes a bus as far as it will go, aptly depositing him in a town called Apogee. Asterios gets a job as a mechanic with a kind, buffoonish malaprop factory named Stiffly Major, married to a Rubensesque new age "goddess" named Ursula. As the book proceeds, the reader is given three different perspectives: a straightforward account of Asterios' days in Apogee, a series of flashbacks to his past (in particular, to the way his relationship with his wife crumbed) and asides told by his dead twin brother, Ignazio.

If Asterios' crime against the gods was hubris, what was the nature of his pride and vanity? It was the way he apprehended structure and design and used it to bend the universe to his will. As a famous professor of architecture, this had a profound impact on his students. With the way he treated his wife, this would prove to be unforgiveable by the gods (even when his ex-wife herself eventually forgives him). That structure he was so infatuated with was one of simple duality: everything can be understood in opposition to other concepts. Such binary concepts have their uses in everyday life, but Mazzucchelli views them as one would a drawing of a square: it's two dimensional, flat. Like Polyp's designs, they exist only on paper (he was a renowned "paper architect", with none of his designs ever being built). Adding a third dimension (from square to cube) increases the complexity of a set of concepts, eliminating some easily-reducible conclusions, but also gives such concepts life. It's no accident that Asterios' wife Hana was a sculptor and designer who always worked in three dimensions.

The ultimate problem with this dualistic point of view, where one categorizes everything as either/or, is that the eventual extrapolation of this idea is the definitive set of categories: right/wrong. This happens with Asterios, where he abandons observation and rationality and reifies his understanding of the world as one where he is always right and anyone who disagrees with him is always wrong as a hard and fast rule. The elements of his relationship with his wife that he thought were perfectly complementary turned out to be occluding his wife's very sense of identity and self-worth. A natural wallflower with little self-esteem, it took the introduction of a buffoonish blowhard of a choreographer who fawned on her to make her realize what she wasn't getting from her husband.

For Asterios, his wife leaving him was as much a thunderbolt to the way he constructed his own version of reality as it was him grieving her loss as a person. That feeling of being split in half and the alienation that resulted was the sensation that he most feared in life, given that his brother died shortly after birth. What he doesn't understand that his attempts to regain a sense of wholeness were a horrible sort of botched surgery that wound up traumatizing his other half, something he alludes to throughout the work when Asterios wonders if he somehow killed his twin himself. Leaving her broke down his carefully-constructed dualisms and barriers between himself and the spectre of his twin. This played out in Asterios watching a videotape of his first date with his ex-wife Hana, part of a set created to create a phantom or twin version of his life. The choices twins make are often freakishly similar (even separated by time and distance), and Asterios thought he could give his twin a mirror life of sorts. Crossing the line and watching the tape was an indication both of what he knew he had lost and an attempt at trying to reconcile that sense of being split that he felt so acutely.

Asterios' experiences in Apogee play out as an extended form of penance & letting go as well as an unexpected series of lectures designed to expand and explode his old set of cognitive & emotional steady-states. This played out most powerfully in a scene near the end, when a discussion arises on what holds relationships together. Asterios immediately chimes in with yet another binary system, but a female friend interrupts and delivers a brilliant but simple model: she takes three badges and names them trust, respect and love. Angling them against each other allows them to stand freely, but she notes that removing any one element will cause the structure to collapse. Once again, the theme of three vs two arises, and once again, it's presented as a complex, three-dimensional structure as opposed to a more simplistic concept.

There's much to delight in visually in this book. The page where Asterios meets Hana and the reader understands how they complete each other in the way that their colors and design start to merge was simply brilliant and spoke to what was happening better than words ever could; it was one of many "only in comics" moments in the book. The fact that we never some them merge again quite like that again until the end is telling. Indeed, when Asterios reunites with Hana, the effect is somewhat subtle: we don't see the tell-tale formal framework surrounding each character, as Mazzucchelli does throughout the book. Instead, the entire environment is bursting with heretofore unseen colors: green, peach, orange, brown and more. It reflected that Asterios was no longer quite imposing his view of reality externally the way he had before and he was now ready to see things through different eyes. Given also that Asterios' base color was blue and Hana's red, it also makes sense that purple is the dominant color found in the book. It's used to create line, for spotting purposes and even for lettering.

A number of the philosophical asides were quite clever, though I found myself wishing there were more of them. I especially enjoyed the aside about memory and temporality, where it's presented that the two are mutually exclusive. Memory is an atemporal construction of the mind that nonetheless gives the illusion of "playback". That was especially true of Asterios, who possessed the rare gift of an eidetic memory. Even that sort of ability, no matter what details could be remembered, only produces an image of an experience--never the experience itself as it is being experienced. That aside gave those memories Asterios chose to relive an interesting context, especially a superb set of fractured images of Hana as a visceral, living human being (burping, sneezing, clipping her toenails, etc.)--perhaps the only time he accepted and loved her for precisely who she was (as opposed to what he wanted her to be), which was the only thing she ever wanted from him.

Some of the images in the book are a bit too on-the-nose, like the way he finally was able to enjoy nature after he built a treehouse, the Orpheus dream sequence or especially the grotesque buffoon Willy Ilium. The latter character is intended both as a warped reflection of Asterios and his superior of sorts, in that Willy saw the world a bit more broadly than Asterios--and especially in the attention he lavished on Hana. While I understood his purpose in the story, he was such a broad character that his very presence on the page drew me out of the story. It almost felt like Mazzucchelli was getting a bit of revenge in print on someone who had greatly annoyed him, given his pomposity and string of bad habits. Obviously, the character was designed to be irritating, but as a reader I resented his presence in a book where Mazzucchelli was sympathetic to a wide range of character types.

Ultimately, the book is about design in all senses of the word: the physical design of a comic book page; the designs of Asterios and the ways in which he falls short in his life; and design in the sense of having a plan or intetion. Mazzucchelli is as interested in how overlapping differently-colored panels, playing with word balloons & thought balloons to make them more iconic and integrate them more directly on the page and creating an emotional tone through the use of color as he is in exploring the lives of his characters. The book is also about point-of-view, as many of the unexpected jolts he receives throughout his life could have been handled better if only he had seen them differently. If only he had let his wife share the spotlight; if only he had seen what she wanted and tried to give it to her, instead of treating her as a beloved appendage rather than a true the end, it wound up being too late for both of them, as they meet their end in a rather spectacular "act of god". That ending is a sort of punchline and twisted deus-ex-machina, only this time the act of god fulfills a tragedy rather than prevents it.

When this book is studied in the future (and I'm fairly certain it will be), what future students will get out of it is the way Mazzucchelli created his own set of visual rules and simultaneously critiqued the inorganic superimposition of rules, patterns and structure on others, for either art or life. The central tension of the book at its heart is the use of a bracing and bold formalism to critique the rigidity of formalism. He uses caricatures while critiquing reducing others to caricature. The characters in the book want nothing more than a way to express themselves and receive acknowledgment and feedback on that expression. Mazzucchelli breaks down the individual desires behind that need for expression, making form and content blur into one another. It's a heady mix, even if Mazzucchelli pulled back at times a bit more than he needed to, and felt as much like a road map for Mazzucchelli's future development as an artist than it did a coherent work. I'll be excited to see how Mazzucchelli develops this new visual language given that he's now established a basic vocabulary for it in the pages of ASTERIOS POLYP.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Shaggy Mouse Story: Little Mouse Gets Ready

Reviewed is the newest entry from the young readers Toon Books line, Jeff Smith's LITTLE MOUSE GETS READY.

Jeff Smith and Francoise Mouly's Toon Book line are a pretty obvious match for each other. Smith's fantasy series BONE, while not explicitly aimed at children, still drew a huge audience from the younger set despite some pretty intense moments. Amazingly, the book took on a second life when Smith decided to reprint it in color through Scholastic Books. BONE worked because it lulled readers into thinking it was going to be a whimsical, quirky story along the lines of Walt Kelly's POGO; indeed, both Smith's line and the patois of his characters were very much in the spirit of Kelly's work. After thoroughly establishing all of the foibles of his characters, Smith then veered off into a Tolkeinesque fantasy quest story that had the relentless action flow of a Carl Barks story. One gets the sense when reading Smith that there's a very careful and deliberate amount of thought that goes into every storytelling decision. What makes his comics successful is that his deliberate style still manages to retain a great deal of spontaneity on the page. His line is as loose and expressive as his composition is deliberate and controlled.

That really tends to play itself out when Smith is dealing with humor. Given that his storytelling style veers from humorous to serious on a dime, I was curious to see what would happen when he took on a story specifically aimed at first-time readers. What makes LITTLE MOUSE GETS READY so clever is that it's both a shaggy dog story in that a lot of build-up is subverted for a punchline that essentially negates the rest of the story. At the same time, the build-up itself is both charming and didactic. The story, such as it is, unfolds thusly: a child mouse gets ready to visit the barn with his mother. First, he must get dressed. He soliloquizes as he puts on each article of clothing, struggling with dressing himself like any child at that age might. Finally, his mother comes by and delivers a plop-take inducing punchline ("Mice don't wear clothes"). It's not so much a story like Geoffrey Hayes, Jay Lynch or Eleanor Davis told in their Toon Book editions than a blow-by-blow delineation of a struggle its readers can identify with. Smith simply can't resist blowing up the educational aspects of the book with a gag that he works hard to depict. At the same time, it's not quite as simplistic as Art Spiegelman or Agnes Rosenstiehl's books, whose vocabulary was clearly aimed at new readers.

Smith's book is somewhere in-between, with a slightly more advanced vocabulary paired with a simplistic structure. The way the book's central joke is constructed might lend itself to enjoyment on multiple occasions for kids in the way a game of peek-a-boo never gets tired. That's because Smith also changes his visual style in order to sell the joke. As noted earlier, Smith is known for his command of panel-to-panel action flow, sweeping a reader along even when other information was lacking. He's also known for his charming and simple character design, which is certainly at work here. LITTLE MOUSE GETS READY was unusual for Smith in that most of the book's pages are static. Little Mouse isn't moving a whole lot, and Smith chooses to really let the book breathe with just one or two panels on every page. The relatively boring action on each page is countered by the pleasing character design and expressiveness, especially in the eyes. When the gag is delivered, the reader is treated to a two-page spread as Little Mouse bounds away from the eyes of his mother and his audience. LITTLE MOUSE GETS READY gives the young reader a nice punchline but doesn't really play to Smith's strengths. I'd love to see future Toon Books efforts by him that are a bit more traditional in terms of narrative and play more toward his skills as a dynamic storyteller. Still, it's nice to see Smith do something very much unlike what he's best known for.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Inside-Out: Follow Me

Rob reviews Jesse Moynihan's debut graphic novel, FOLLOW ME (Bodega Distribution).

FOLLOW ME is actually a follow-up (but stand-alone) to Jesse Moynihan's two issues of THE BACKWARDS FOLDING MIRROR, one of the more delightfully strange series I've ever read. In FOLLOW ME, we see an artist at the height of his powers: confident with his own strengths and weaknesses as a draftsman and turning every idiosyncrasy into a powerful and dynamic sense of style. I've rarely seen a more individually expressive marriage of form and content than in this comic, which has shot up into my personal top ten comics of the year to date. Moynihan effortlessly shifts between and mashes up genres, maintaining a casual sense of humor no matter what sort of weirdness he throws at the reader.

It's hard to pin down influences for this comic. There's certainly some Gary Panter in there, in terms of the ambling narrative and main character who wanders from odd situation and makes sudden, dramatic transformations. But Moynihan eschews Panter's ragged-line quality in his comics. Indeed, there's a smoothness and simplicity to his line that makes reading each page easy. The directness of Moynihan's composition also contrasts him with another possible influence: Mat Brinkman. There's the same kind of crazy internal logic driving Moynihan's narrative as in Brinkman, but Moynihan has a much firmer hand on the reader's eye. Moynihan isn't quite as immersive in terms of his backgrounds as a Brian Ralph, even when leading the reader on a journey.

There's also a delightful vulgarity to Moynihan's work that's rather matter-of-fact, especially with regard to sex and sexuality. Every event that happens to the book's unnamed protagonist (a short man wearing a conical hat) is depicted with an air of detachment, whether it's a passive-aggressive argument with his girlfriend, an encounter with a homeless man who haunts him after his accidental death, or living on past infinity after the end of the world. The protagonist is always slightly restless, never satisfied either at home or away.

FOLLOW ME has a psychedelic bent to it in the truest sense of the word. Many of the stories feel like acid trips, experiences where the filters we put up against the world fall away and our perceptions change. At the same time, genuinely strange things often happen when one is in public in an altered state, and the book brings that sort of feeling to the page. The book starts with a hilarious and eye-opening sequence where the protagonist, after realizing that he's not going to get to see his girlfriend, performs fellatio on himself. Amazingly, that act is referenced again late in the book as he floats in the void and meets up with someone else. There's a loose but very deliberate structure in this book, as throw-away references pop up again repeatedly. Strange images recur and wind up taking different meanings. Unexplained characters take on new roles, like the protagonist's devil-friend who winds up becoming king of the underworld and later shoot's the protagonist's girlfriend.

Very quickly, the book starts to cohere around a central core of short stories. "Mirror Man" features the protagonist's encounter and role in the accidental death of a homeless man who attacks him. The homeless man comes to haunt him after death, but the protagonist is indifferent and refuses to play along; eventually, the homeless man leaves, grumbling "Same shit every day of my life". In "Big Talk", the protagonist dodges a potential break-up from his girlfriend after seeing a vision, collecting her menstrual blood and planting it. The resulting tree that sprouted up had a headless John the Baptist inside, who liked slow jams but had little wisdom to offer. When the protagonist starts to perceive living beings as blobs of energy, he stabs himself in the head (possibly in the pineal gland?) to stop the effect.

"Bubble" plays with time and space conventions after he gets hit by a car; he winds up taking the man who hit him (now dead) on a trip to the ends of the earth, only to be denied access to a hidden valley. He later encounters what appears to be an alternate version of himself inside a weird physical emanation, who revisits a traumatic encounter with someone who accosted him on the street and reformulates it by kissing him (prompting the potential mugger to say, "I'll never be ashamed of love again.") That leads to "Moment of Truth" and a rap pilgrim looking for the best rhymes, who winds up climbing a tree sprouting out of the hero's head and engaging in a rap battle with god (and losing). Finally, "No Choice" throws in all sorts of ritualistic and shamanic rites as the hero destroys the earth, gets yelled at (to no effect) by various shamans, and winds up floating in the void as one of his few companions masturbates.

I realize that my description of the book found in the last three paragraphs sounds like utter gibberish, yet it's a pretty accurate description of what happens. The book has a fluid quality to it that allows Moynihan to go on these very long digressions without the story feeling like weird-for-weird's-sake. This is a book where the reader simply needs to allow oneself to be swept along with what the artist is doing, because a close reading is rewarded by the surprising connections Moynihan makes. Above all else, Moynihan quickly establishes a rhythm to this story, a series of beats that make the reader follow along and flow with the absurd, enigmatic and sometimes inexplicable events of the story. The hero wants answers, wants a purpose, wants wisdom handed to him, but is frustrated to find again and again that there are no answers to be found. He is cynical and smartassed, but keeps trying and keeps hoping, even when it literally takes forever to do so.

The book rewards multiple readings, as connections become clearer and certain jokes start to make more sense. Moynihan unravels time, space, ego and the Other in a manner that manages to be direct in some aspects of its presentation (like when he undergoes various transformations) and oblique in others (like why it's happening). Things simply happen, and the hero has a choice in how to deal with them--and his choice is to be as aggressive as possible when it comes to knowledge and as passive as possible when it comes to relationships. That willingness to engage with the abstract rather than face the complexities of honestly engaging other people is at the core of the hero's journey, and it's a conflict that is never resolved. For the reader, this record of that trip is one not to miss.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Another Side of CCS

Here's another look at work from Center For Cartoon Studies (CCS) students new and old. Included are works by Sam Gaskin, Kubby, Jeff Lok, G.P. Bonesteel, Morgan Pielli, and Joshua Rosen.

OPHESTIOS, 1890 by Joshua Rosen. Rosen is currently entering his second year at CCS, and this pleasing little mini faked me out at first. Given the sort of alternate-world explication of the city of Orphestios as capital of the "Northern Empire", I expected some sort of political world-building story. The story started off as what seemed to be a comedy of manners, and then we got another fake-out: this was a rehearsal of a play that was going badly. It's not until we're introduced to the character of Iosif, an itinerant playwright, that the story really begins. It took me a while to warm up to Rosen's scribbly character design and extensive use of grey and black for backgrounds. I think the dreariness it created was intentional, given that this was supposed to be a Russia-like country in the winter. The consistency of Rosen's visual language eventually won me over, especially with the expressiveness of his characters.

This is a story about the intersection between art and love, and the quest to link the two. Iosif is a celebrity of sorts back in Orphestios, but he hates the attention, hates talking about his work and especially hates people talking to him about what they think art really is. He's fascinated by a singer at a club and starts to obsess over her, only to learn that they were childhood friends--and feelings still ran deep. What I liked most about this story is that ultimately Iosif is not a sympathetic character, even if he is the protagonist. Given the opportunity to grab onto something truly meaningful in his life, he instead gives into temptation and tries to slough off his regret by saying "Fuck it". That interesting turn came during a clever, silent two-page sequence where Iosif and an actress hook up. We see close-ups of the couple with grey backgrounds, alternating with white-on-black squiggles depicting sex and then dissolving into unconsciousness. This is a solid if modest early effort, and I'll be curious to see if Rosen continues to build more stories in this environment.

KILLER INK COMICS #1, ICE CREAM and THE SURVIVING LIFE OF HANZE ENEFFER, by G.P. Bonesteel. Bonesteel is a humorist somewhat in the vein of a Johnny Ryan, with a particularly deadpan and dry sense of humor combined with a tendency to go over the top (and beyond). ICE CREAM is a tiny minicomic wherein Bonesteel uses a minimalist line to depict what happens when an ice cream truck doesn't stop for a group of kids: rocks, guns and flaming arrows are deployed. This is essentially a bit of extended slapstick, with all sorts of clever background eye-pops. HANZE ENEFFER is another minimal-line comic featuring an anthropomorphic rabbit's pathetic dating life. This one feels more than a little familiar, with the lonely loser finally scoring but eventually feeling even worse about his life. It's nowhere near as provocative as his other work.

The real draw here is KILLER INK COMICS #1, especially the first story. This is the tale of "Abortion Andy", a for-hire aborted baby who lectures teenagers about the perils of teen sex. In this story, he interrupts a young couple with his bizarre lecture, complete with two pages of working in track listings from Grease into his warnings. It's an audacious idea, hilariously executed with as straight a face as possible. The backup story features a man on the run from Cupid on Valentine's Day and the collateral damage their conflict causes (including a man falling in lust with a newspaper vending machine). This story is a bit more predictable (and I've seen a similar idea in the pages of PROJECT: ROMANTIC) but still funny. Bonesteel's line is a bit crude at this point but still effective in getting across his gags. I'll be curious to see just where he takes the Abortion Andy series in future episodes.

INDESTRUCTIBLE UNIVERSE QUARTERLY #1 & #2, by Morgan Pielli. These are grab bag collections of CCS grad Pielli's stories for assorted anthologies and other odds & ends. These are really nicely assembled, with beautiful silkscreened covers, striking design and nice paper. The art in the first issue is all angles and interesting formal tricks. Pielli often dips into sci-fi type stories, like "For Want Of An Oomplip", wherein a punctuation error on an alien sign nearly sets off a war. A longer story in the first issue features a chase between two characters across, through and between the gutters of panels.

The second issue also features a story with some unusual panel configurations. "The Watchmaker's Dance" reimagines earth's creation story as carried out by three alien robots. The use of tiny panels and sketchy line makes this story work well; in fact, it's the most attractive and successful of all the stories featured in these two issues. Pielli abandoned that more angular style of character design for the rest of the issue in favor of a softer, fuzzier line that was a bit less interesting. His stories continued to have a certain tortured quality to them, like "The Terror In Choices", featuring a man who loses everything after he loses his ability to choose. "The Trial of Narcissus" features an irresistible hook: everyone realizes that god is coming in three days, but the revelation of its true form drives everyone insane. At the moment, it seems like Pielli is experimenting with different drawing approaches, looking for the most comfortable style. I thought the more angular approach was more interesting, but it's clear that Pielli really thinks through his pages carefully. I especially like the way he straddles genres without owing allegiance to any one in particular.

SAM 'N DAN, by Jeff Lok. A quick look at Lok's work reveals that while he doesn't have the drawing facility of some of his fellow CCS grads, he overcomes that with the use of various techniques and a total commitment to the dark absurdity of his concepts. This is the story of a bank-robbing dog and cat duo named Sam and Dan. The cat speaks with a faux-elegant dialect, as though he were an early 20th century con man. The dog, a truly disturbing characters, says little but does much. After they rob a bank, the dog shoots the sun with his gun, bringing on darkness and an encounter with a wood witch, ancient prophesies, fireflies that shoot lasers out of their eyes and a commandment to duel each other to the death. To set the mood, Lok makes extensive use of hatching and cross-hatching. That creates an oppressive atmosphere with his otherwise funnily-drawn anthropomorphic characters. Sam the dog in particular has a Droopy-like expression no matter his mood or situation, which cracks me up in spite of his psychopathic personality. Dan the cat is an oily smooth talker who talks loud but says nothing, and it's fun to watch him sweat, slant his mouth and otherwise squirm while otherwise looking quite cheerful. The wood witch, an amorphous-looking creature, later tries to disguise itself as a farmer in the least-convincing costume of all time.

Lok brings all sorts of weird, comedic touches to a piece that has apocalyptic overtones, making its overall tone hard to pin down but compelling. His matter-of-fact absurdism reminds a little of what Chuck Forsman is doing, but Lok brings a different sensibility to his work. It's more clearly calculated and less improvisatory than Forsman's comics (especially in SNAKE OIL). Both artists are world-builders where the reader is deliberately kept in the dark, but there is certainly a logic of sorts behind the weirdness. Forsman's work is more about the telling of tales through the mundane execution of a journey, while with Lok it's about a series of bigger moments. I look forward to fat collections of comics by both artists in the future.

THE MUD BOG, POCKET PORN #1, r, THE UGLY PLACE and BEAUTY PATROL, by Kubby. Kubby's comics are beautiful, intensely personal little art objects. All stops are pulled out as we see full color, silkscreened covers, interesting paper, etc. THE UGLY PLACE is a 24-hour comic that's one of the best-looking of it's kind that I've seen. It's a silent story about a farmer who puts in a hard day's work threshing a field, only to be overcome by a memory of a lost love. The stoic farmer tucks the memory away when he gets home, only to wistfully see the image of his lover in the door. This looks like it was done only in pencil with no inks, but Kubby goes to town on creating gradations of texture, especially in the close-up shots of the farmer's face. The viscerality and sweat of the farmer's toil on page after page is a nice contrast to the real pain he feels.

r is a very personal little mini that details the death of someone very close to the artist, printed on purple paper with what looks like colored pencil. There are some striking images, like the cartoonist-as-bear hunched over a sheet of paper with slitted eyes. THE MUD BOG is an experiment in color, detailing a funny memory of hiding out and watching guys driving their pick-up trucks into a mud pit, gunning the gas and getting it covered with mud. Why they do this and why people secretly watched it is besides the point; it was clearly something that both groups loved for different reasons. POCKET PORN was something Kubby drew collaborating with another writer and drawn with a brush, giving it a scratchy quality not seen in the artist's other work. It's a story of fetishes gone slightly awry, as a dominant woman and a more submissive woman who likes feet meet behind a dumpster. As the dominant woman is using her foot to pleasure the sub, the sub makes the mistake of suggesting that she be "rocked like a baby". That angers the dominant, who then uses her feet to slap her legs and ass raw. It's a visceral, ugly series of moments that clearly bring mixed feelings to the sub. The brush works both for and against the artist here: the scratchy quality of the line and the way it blurs reinforces the nature of the experience, but there are points at which there's a lack of overall clarity. It's still one of the more interesting examples of comics erotica I've read.

The artist's most-distributed comic is BEAUTY PATROL, a delightful series of fake-outs, science lectures, psychedelia, long-distance longings and time dilations. The book starts with a comic called "Beauty Patrol", about a bear making his way around the world. It's promptly crumpled mid-page by the artist of the strip, Cody Roder. The rest of the comic finds Cody going about her day off, meeting a strange person with whom she shares a connection they don't understand. It's there that Cody starts to wonder if deja vu is simply our understanding that time isn't a straight line. Meanwhile, we also follow the day of Cody's long-distance love Roxie Dagger, who who is on a more deliberate quest (to see her favorite band) but winds up in circumstances as unexpected as Cody. There's a spontaneity to Kubby's line here that I enjoy that carries it through some of its rougher pages; indeed, the more scribbly the line, the more the images burst off the page.

PIZZA WIZARD #2, CALL ALL MY DAWGS #3, and SUGARCUBE by Sam Gaskin. Gaskin's PIZZA WIZARD and other humor comics are sort of like Mat Brinkman on Pop Rocks. They carry fantasy elements, ludicrous quests and earthy & dense foregrounds and backgrounds. Gaskin's imagery is a bit simpler and easier to process than Brinkman's, and much sillier. There's definitely a story going on in these one-page episodes, revolving around the title character's quest for a magic pizza, but they're really an excuse for propulsive world-exploration in the Fort Thunder tradition. Gaskin is also working in the tradition of classic Sunday comic strips, supporting the main strip with shorter strips at the bottom of the page (usually tangential to the main story), wacky puzzles, and even hand-made advertisements (the weirdest of which was a straightforward ad for a fast food restaurant that winds up playing a significant role later in the story.

That's an apt metaphor, because Gaskin's work has a delightful junk food quality to it. In CALL ALL MY DAWGS #3, Gaskin gives us his ode to the schlock comedian Sinbad. Of course, it's filtered through Gaskin's demented imagination, so we see Sinbad bemused by the Cheshire Cat, posing in various outfits, having his TV son defecate on a toybox to spite him and dream about Kenan 'n Kel and barbecue sauce, wondering if he's become a "ghost dad". It's simultaneous a perfect tribute and deconstruction of a familiar but awful pop culture figure. It's comics like these that make Gaskin a singular figure as a humorist, even when he wears his visual inspirations on his metaphorical sleeve.

SUGARCUBE stands as a very surprising and personal work for Gaskin, and a wholly unexpected one. The story's protagonist, Andy, learns at age 20 that he has type-1 diabetes; and his whole life changes. This comic is less about the disease than the way it made Andy feel like his youth was over. By the end of the story, his earnest recklessness felt out of place, but he was no happier being forced to grow up so quickly. Gaskin eschews the more textured approach of his other work and instead uses a minimalist approach: clear lines, sparse backgrounds and iconic character work. Gaskin is trying to get across a lot of pain here, and I'm guessing he went this route so as not to overdo it. He also intersperses some of the heavier moments of depression with quotidian anecdotes about the mechanics of testing for blood sugar and injecting insulin as well as funny anecdotes about how and why he started smoking marijuana. That actually winds up as a significant plot point when he and his best friend are caught smoking by a policeman, the single event that effectively ended Andy's whimsical childhood. This is a comic without a neat and tidy ending; Andy feels trapped and the comic ends with an absurd fantasy sequence about becoming a subsidy farmer, living a quiet life. This isn't so much an ending as an escape, a denial; Andy has a long way to go to becoming a fully-realized person.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Digging Deeper: Melvin Monster and Moomin

Rob reviews two intriguing reprint projects from Drawn & Quarterly: MELVIN MONSTER VOL I and MOOMIN VOL IV.

In this, the Golden Age of Reprints, we've started to get all sorts of heretofore unlikely and obscure comics getting loving reissues. While Fantagraphics' reprinting of PEANUTS kicked things off and there have been other long-running and beloved series getting rereleases, this is also a time when publishers are taking chances and printing some less obvious choices. Drawn & Quarterly in particular has been issuing forgotten series or comics unfamiliar to American audiences for quite some time. Indeed, the Drawn & Quarterly anthology in years past reintroduced such classics as Gasoline Alley as well as the work of Doug Wright.

D&Q has really gone to another level by taking a risk and reprinting Tove Jansson's classic MOOMIN series, with great success, as well as starting the John Stanley Library. Seth's design for Stanley's shorter and lesser-known comics is not unlike a prestige children's line of forty years ago, complete with an embossed cover, a "John Stanley Library" seal on the back, playful endpapers, etc. Rather than reprinting the series on glossy paper (the bane of many reprint series, especially when originals can't be found), it's on paper that uncannily mimics the original pages. As a designer, Seth sets the emotional tone for his projects with the endpapers and repurposed images from the original art. For PEANUTS, he's reclaimed the strip's contemplative and melancholy aspects, using dark tones in the endpapers and stripping the characters away from familiar background shots. PEANUTS, partly through it being so thoroughly marketed over the years, had become shorthand for sentimentality as opposed to more complex emotions, and it felt as though Seth needed to correct for this.

In MELVIN MONSTER, on the other hand, Seth seems to be attempting to create an alternate reality where John Stanley's books have always been children's classics, read by millions in perpetuity. It's as though we've reached through a time machine to pluck out a newly-published volume from 1965. The first endpapers we see reinforce the "JSL" brand with lots of funny drawings of the title character; it's both slightly stuffy (indicating to parents the brand name) and endearing (letting children know the emotional tone of the book). The next few pages tell the reader that while this comic is funny, it also involves monsters and vaguely disturbing images--the way Seth has black-ink drawings on charcoal-gray backgrounds, with only the eyes colored bright white, creates an atmosphere that is somehow both goofy and slightly scary.

Getting to the stories themselves, the hook of the series is a young monster boy who is a constant disappointment to his parents because he wants to be good, go to school, not be destructive, etc. Stanley gets a lot of mileage out of this very simple shtick, as the indomitable Melvin has to find ways to outwit his parents and everyone around him. The situational gags are better than some of the cheaper visual gags. It's funny that his mother is "Mummy" and is dressed up in bandages and his father is "Baddy" and is a hulking Frankenstein-like monster; it's funnier to see him innocently outwit the parade of creatures (and people) trying to kill him. It's even funnier when he winds up in "human bean land" where "everybody is nice and kind", only to be tossed down into a manhole, chased by a car and whacked by a woman carrying a purse. The punchline layered on top of that betrayal is that Melvin interpreted these actions as people trying to make him feel at home!

The best sequence of the book is where his parents send him to the cellar as punishment--a place where even they don't go. Stanley throws all sorts of sight gags in, like being told to watch out for a steep third step, only to find that there are no steps at all after the third one. Melvin wavers between being a scared little boy (calling for his guardian demon, whose help is dubious) and an invincible innocent, stumbling into adventure after adventure and inadvertently escaping harm. When his father winds up in the cellar later on, it's sweet (but unstated) revenge. The stories in this volume (reprinting the first three issues of the original comic book) vary from longer adventure stories to shorter bits that establish life in Melvin's house, like the furry arm in his wall that acts as his alarm clock but also plays checkers with Melvin during the night.

Stanley the writer is clever, but what sells the work is Stanley the artist. His line is simple and his figures are delightfully cartoony. His characters are remarkably expressive despite the simplicity of their design; like Schulz, Stanley, with just a squiggle or two, could completely change the mood of a page. In the Monsterville sequences, Stanley throws in eye pop after eye pop (Will Elder-style), punning on monster cliches with either funny drawings or funny labels. What I like best about his art is the way he propels Melvin from scene to scene, creating constant but seamless action. I'm really looking forward to future releases in the Stanley library, especially his teenager comics. There's a breeziness to his character design that I find irresistible, and such comics are really in his wheelhouse as a cartoonist. It's a tribute to his skill and ingenuity that he was able to pull off a slightly more visceral and wacky style in MELVIN MONSTER.

This was the first volume of the collected MOOMIN strips that I'd read, and as it turns out four of the five stories were written by Lars, as opposed to Tove, Jansson. Tove still drew the stories that were featured in a British daily newspaper, and they still possessed a remarkable amount of gentle charm and wit. Jansson's line is remarkable simple and graceful in creating her family of hippo-like Moomintrolls. She got more out of less than any cartoonist this side of Charles Schulz. Unlike Schulz, Jansson's work also had a number of clever decorative touches. In many of her strips, she used things like umbrellas, canes, flutes, pens and lamps to form the vertical interior panel borders, subtly reinforcing the story's themes. Jannson first gained fame as a children's book illustrator with her Moominfamily, but these strips were actually aimed at adults.

While restraint was certainly Tove's watchword as a cartoonist, the stories themselves had a surprising amount of bite. While "Moomin Goes Wild West" is the weakest of the five storylines in this book (due in part to the reliance on stereotypical western humor as the Moomins go back in time), it does wind up redeeming itself by revealing that the wild west adventures they experienced were all part of a cynical, money-making con. "Snorkmaiden Goes Rococo" is another slightly formulaic story spoofing the overromanticization of the age of enlightenment. The book really picks up with "The Conscientious Moomins", a hilarious spoof of manners and "duty" that felt like a direct blow to philosophers like Kant. Jansson depicts a great deal of chaotic bufoonery in her drawings, yet her strips were always clear and never cluttered. Like Schulz, Jansson rarely relied on funny drawings to get across her gags, preferring to let her art tell the story and the gags flow naturally from character and situation.

The book saves its best for last with "Moomin and the Comet" and "Moomin And the Golden Tail". The former is a surprisingly grim, apocalyptic tale of how the various denizens of Moominvalley deal with the arrival of a potentially deadly comet. The satire of parasites, opportunists and last-second religious converts is pointed but still gentle; even the biggest phonies in these stories tended to be treated more with pity than scorn. The latter story was written by Tove and is incredibly rich in characterization and acidic in tone. When Moomin accidentally acquires a golden tail and receives unexpected fame, he has to face the negative consequences such a life brings. It's obvious that this was a commentary on Jansson's own life as an unexpectedly huge international success; the cutting remarks on managers and worldwide merchandising rights sounded like they were coming from the voice of experience. Despite that success, it was obvious that Jansson related much more to the carefree, bohemian lifestyle of the Moomins and their friends rather than any attempts at "bettering" themselves or putting on aristrocratic airs.

Rescuing these strips from obscurity was truly a public service on D&Q's part. It's encouraging that this big risk has paid off so handsomely for the small publisher; the Moomin books have become their biggest sellers. It's interesting to see a boutique publisher like D&Q suddenly flourish in the book market, especially with collections aimed at children and old-time strip fans. It's only logical that the publisher will branch out and starting reprinting Jansson's actual children's picture books, which will be a departure of sorts since they've rarely strayed far from comics in their publishing history. I think the biggest reason why their reprints aimed at children have been so successful is that these have been labors of love that have paid off for both designer and publisher, rather than cynical money grabs. The care and detail in these projects shows and no doubt draws in the curious reader. With more Stanley volumes and Jansson reprints on the way, readers will have much to look forward to.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The John Kerschbaum Interview

[Please note: This interview originally appeared in The Comics Journal #295.]

In a perfect and just world, John Kerschbaum would be one of its most famous cartoonists. In the world of comics, he instead carries the status of cult favorite, a cartoonist’s cartoonist. One reason his work is treasured among the discerning few is that there’s a surface blandness to his drawings that belie their content. His work becomes all the more jarring when he suddenly injects violent and viscerally powerful scenes depicted in that same cozy, cartoony style. Kerschbaum’s work demands full engagement from his readers, often crafting punchlines that are not immediately obvious unless one follows the verbal and visual clues he provides very closely. He is a gag craftsman of the first order, a total master of panel and page composition as well as the integration of word and image. Above all else, Kerschbaum trades in deception, luring the reader in with one set of expectations and then brutally subverting those expectations repeatedly.

Kerschbaum began his career trying to become a syndicated cartoonist with a number of false starts. He did freelance cartoons for any number of national publications in the early 90s and even had a collection of strips published (IF NEW YORK CITY WAS THE WORLD). In 1996, he received a Xeric grant for his one-man humor anthology, THE WIGGLY READER. Attendees of shows like SPX or MoCCA will recall a stream of hilarious, attractively-designed minis he crafted for those shows. TIMBERDOODLE was nominated for an Ignatz award and may be one of the most memorable minicomics of the last decade, all about a young boy named Wally Timberdoodle who happened to be born with an enormous wooden cock. His most recent creations, Petey and Pussy, were finally published in the format they deserve by Fantagraphics. The book is anchored by his longest sustained comics narrative, a dense collection of brutal gags that leads up to a final, sublime punchline.


CLOUGH: Where are you from originally? Did you grow up drawing? Were you encouraged in this pursuit by your family?

KERSCHBAUM: Farmingdale, Long Island. I drew a lot as a kid. My mom had been an art teacher. I recall getting a lot of encouragement both at home and in school.

CLOUGH: Did you grow up reading comics? What sort of things had the biggest impact on you as a child? Am I correct in assuming that MAD magazine, and Will Elder in particular, were influences?

KERSCHBAUM: I didn't read a lot of superhero comics. I was into Spider-Man for a few years; they sold it at a local drugstore. I always looked forward to getting the next issue. But at some point, I think Marvel started to weave the story line from the one comic into several other titles and in order to follow the story, you had to buy all of them. That annoyed me and I sorta gave it up.

I loved MAD - my favorite was Don Martin. I'd say he's probably my greatest influence. But I enjoyed the whole magazine - the fold- in, the movie and television parodies - Jack Davis and Mort Drucker wowed me. In my early teens, I started reading National Lampoon and Heavy Metal. I really loved the cartoonists in National Lampoon – Gahan Wilson, S. Gross, Bobby London, and Shary Flenniken. While looking in the humor section of the local bookstore for an S. Gross collection, I found one of B. Kliban's paperbacks and spent years tracking the rest of those down. Somewhere in there I stumbled upon Edward Gorey, too. I also enjoyed reading the comics in the newspaper.

CLOUGH: What sort of schooling or training did you receive in art?

KERSCHBAUM: I studied illustration at Parsons School of Design.

CLOUGH: Was the training you received there useful to you as an artist?

KERSCHBAUM: I learned a lot of stuff and met a lot of people who affected my career later. It was definitely a positive experience for me. I also met my future wife there, and it doesn’t get much better than that. She was also in the illustration program.

CLOUGH: What other cultural influences played a part in shaping you as an artist?

KERSCHBAUM: Do movies and television count as culture? I loved Monty Python. Saturday Night Live introduced me to the stand-up of Steve Martin (comedically, he was a big influence). Get Smart was a favorite. I'd stay up late to watch The Twilight Zone. That was awesome to me. I would guess that's where my affinity for twisty surprise endings came from. I really enjoyed cartoons like Looney Tunes, Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, and Pink Panther. As a kid I really wanted to be an animator. I studied those shows and tried to draw like them.

CLOUGH: When did you first start cartooning seriously?

KERSCHBAUM: In the late eighties, I tried pretty hard to be a cartoonist in The New Yorker. I was very serious about it for a while.

CLOUGH: How much drawing are you able to do on a daily basis that isn't directly related to your comics or illustration work? Does the physical act of drawing bring you pleasure?

KERSCHBAUM: I doodle occasionally but I rarely draw for the sake of drawing anymore. If I have some free time it's more likely I'll try to write.

CLOUGH: Do you consider yourself an artist that writes, a writer that draws, or neither?

KERSCHBAUM: I have a lot more experience in drawing than writing. I feel like I’m still learning what I’m doing as a writer, and so it’s more of a challenge. It can be fun. Writing for me is about trying to create a spark of an idea, or stepping away from an idea and coming back to it with a fresh eye.

Professional Work

CLOUGH: The earliest dated strips I've seen from you come from 1992 and were reprinted in If New York City Was the World (Citadel Press). What kind of comics or illustration work did you do prior to this time? Were you making a living as an illustrator before you started selling your comic strips, or did you do something else for a living?

KERSCHBAUM: During the nineties, I worked as a staff artist at United Media. I did the corrections on the syndicated comic strips (United Features & NEA). Back before all the art was digital, the artists would mail their originals to UM where the editors would have a go at them. I then made any corrections on the original art before it was sent to production.
Around the same time, I did a lot of freelance illustration for the Village Voice and Associated Press, among a few others. The AP relationship led to a lot of work for the short-lived sports daily, The National. They were fun to work for and paid well too!I was also actively submitting gag cartoons to various magazines like SPY, The New Yorker, and National Lampoon where, by that time, S. Gross was the cartoon editor. I freaked out the day I got home and found a message on my answering machine from him. It was hysterical. He sounded just like I imagined he would. I'm pretty sure I still have the tape from the answering machine the message he left for me.

CLOUGH: You've made a number of attempts at becoming a syndicated artist. Can you describe what went into making strips like Cartoon Boy (a superhero parody), the original Petey & Pussy strips, and Well Whatta You Know?

KERSCHBAUM: I did Cartoon Boy when I was still working at United Media. I wanted to create a good continuity/adventure strip that was also a gag a day. But I also included every current comic strip taboo. So there's smoking, sexual innuendo, and naughty puns… but all G- rated, really. It began as a joke but I kind of grew to like it. I submitted it to all the big syndicates - no takers. I'm actually considering giving it another shot. Well Whatta You Know? was just an attempt to do a fun and educational strip for kids, something, I felt, the comics pages lacked. Well, what do I know? The magazine I initially did Petey & Pussy for folded before it was launched. So I tried to self-syndicate the original strips to alternative weeklies. Creative Loafing ran it for a few weeks but I think readers complained.

CLOUGH: You've gone back and forth in your career from doing comics & illustration work for children and then doing incredibly visceral, profane, violent humor. Yet, a similar voice can be heard in each set of strips. How do you approach these two different worlds when you're given a particular assignment vs. your own work?

KERSCHBAUM: I enjoy doing both. They're kind of the same but different. They both pose a problem or a set of problems to be solved. With an illustration assignment, my main objective is to make the editor or art director happy - I'm a hired gun. So basically, you do what they tell you. And there's usually a deadline.

I have no real deadlines with my own work so I can shelve something indefinitely when I can't figure it out. And I get to be more self-indulgent. I get to do what I want. Otherwise, the basic approach to each is the same. And when you're doing work for kids you just leave out the cursing… and tits - no tits.

CLOUGH: Something that's remarkable about your style, both in terms of art and writing, is that it seems to have arrived fully-formed in those early-90s strips. The dense cross-hatching, the layers of jokes, the interplay between verbal and visual humor, the slack- jawed character design--it's all there. What went into developing your own personal style and voice? How long did it take you to reach that point? How long did it take before you became fully comfortable with your final, published output on the page?

KERSCHBAUM: This a tough question because I've never really consciously tried to draw with a certain look or style. I just keep drawing until it looks done. By nature, I'm a bit of a nitpicker and for good or bad, I think that's reflected in the art (and the writing, I guess). Just recently, I had a couple of experiences where someone commented on some aspect of the way I draw like, "Oh, yeah, I know your stuff, you draw everybody with big overbites!" And I had to think for a second before realizing, "Oh yeah! I guess I do!"

CLOUGH: Do you ever revisit old works?

KERSCHBAUM: I rarely revisit past projects. I have to re-read the mini-comics whenever I make a new batch (y'know, to check the page order). There are a few things that them make me smile but mostly, I find it difficult to look at old stuff. It usually takes me so long to finish a comic, I've already looked at it and read it dozens of times. So once it's done - I'm done. I must admit I'm enjoying flipping through the new Petey & Pussy book. I think Jacob Covey did a great job with the design – it's a fun little package.

CLOUGH: Dissecting what makes something funny is sort of like killing the goose that laid the golden egg, but here goes: How do you decide to layer the jokes in your strips? Some of your strips provide information that leads up to an ultimate punchline, while others deliver smaller punchlines in each panel. Others, like Timberdoodle, do both.

KERSCHBAUM: I'm not sure I have an answer for this either. There's no science to it that I'm aware of. I mean, there might be… but I don't give it much thought. I just write and rewrite stuff until it makes sense. The jokes kind of write themselves. My immediate goals when I write are, 1. Make it funny; Pack in as many gags as I can. This is probably due to that part of my personality that makes me crosshatch the hell out of everything. And, 2. Challenge the reader; force them to pay attention and maybe turn back a couple pages to check and see if they really saw what they think they saw. I like a punchline or ending that changes all of the previous jokes, sheds new light on them and makes them funny again only in a new way. It's also why I hope people can re-read my comics and laugh at a joke they missed the first time.

CLOUGH: There's often a tension in your strips between subtle and over- the-top. A strip with a lot of violence will often carry a punchline that needs to be carefully deciphered by the observant reader. Do you worry that some of your punchlines will go over inobservant readers' heads?

KERSCHBAUM: Yeah, I worry sometimes, but what can you do? Some people won't get it, some will get it and not like it. It's not everyone's cup of tea.


CLOUGH: Have you always used that intense cross-hatched style? How long does it take you to finish the average comics page?

KERSCHBAUM: I think it's grown more intense over the years but that wasn't a conscious decision. I just draw until it looks done. It's hard to say how long an "average comics page" takes. I don't generally work on one page start to finish. I've always followed a basic routine with comics. I begin with my penciling, and I roughly layout the whole book. I then go back and ink all the lettering and word balloons. I go through the whole book and tighten up the rough pencil drawings. I use a lot of tracing paper to draw and re-draw stuff and place it in the panel exactly where I want it. If there's a lot going on in a panel, I'll often draw all of the elements separately on tracing paper and then transfer each one to the panel. It's sort of like setting a stage, if that makes sense. After that I do the majority of the inking – all the major stuff. Then I erase any pencil peeking through, go back to the beginning again and do all the crosshatching and fill in the solid blacks if there are any. Lastly, I do all the whiting out and correcting. I use a lot of white-out. It's a time-consuming process that I increasingly feel the need to streamline and simplify. I'm having trouble doing that though.

CLOUGH: What do you draw with, in terms of pencils, pens, brushes, etc?

KERSCHBAUM: All sorts of stuff, rapidographs, brushes, etc. but I do most of the inking with a regular old Pigma Micron. I go through them quickly because I have a tendency to break the points coaxing a slight thick and thin out of the line.

I use a quality watercolor brush (size 0 or 1) to do my whiting out. My white-out of choice is Pelikan graphic white, which I always have a hard time finding. It's not great for inking over but that's not such an issue for me (large mistakes I usually patch over and redraw). I use the white-out to draw with. This particular one flows nicely off the brush (when mixed to the right consistency) and is really opaque even when it's thinned down.

CLOUGH: I've always liked your use of color--there's a dense, saturated quality to your hues. How long have you been working with color, and how did you develop your palette?

KERSCHBAUM: Thanks. Funny, this is something I feel I've always struggled with – seems like my color palette is all over the place. Most of my coloring is done in Photoshop these days. I used to use watercolors to paint, but since I never really learned the proper techniques it always was a bit of a crap shoot.

CLOUGH: In your illustration program in college, did you learn other art techniques? Print-making, photography, sculpture, etc? What impact did learning these other techniques have on your aesthetic and career as an artist?

KERSCHBAUM: I took intros to photography and printmaking. I didn't take to either really – too much process. Too many rules and ways to screw up. In printmaking, I was a few shy of the required finished assignments so I actually made a mini-comic as a sort of make-up assignment. I passed the class – barely. I think the teacher would have preferred I had silkscreened it rather than run it off on a Xerox machine…

The Works Themselves

CLOUGH: Building on that last question, can you go into how you developed the ultimate punchlines for your minicomic "Dumb Cluck" and your story from the Wind anthology (Bries)? The former forces the reader to very carefully examine what is being said and how you subvert their immediate expectations, while the latter relies on a subtle but prominent visual cue to explain the ultimate punchline.

KERSCHBAUM: I'm afraid it's hard for me to recall exactly the origins of either of these stories. But I remember for the Wind anthology, I wanted to do a story that wasn't obviously about the wind. Maybe even make the casual reader wonder, "How's that about the wind?!?" But it is - it's all about the wind.

With Dumb Cluck, I set out to create something for kids because they always come up to your table at a convention and most of what I had was inappropriate. So I just set out to do a little riff on a typical kids story. The only other thing I can recall about it is that it came to me very quickly. I wrote, paced, and drew it very quickly without any rewriting, something quite unusual for me. One other interesting thing about Dumb Cluck – at least to me – is that kids always seem to get it right away and adults do not.

CLOUGH: You've done a lot of commercial work over the years. How much do you enjoy working for Nickelodeon, DC Comics, Dolphin Log Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, etc? These strips seem very much "you", even if it was for another entity.

KERSCHBAUM: I've been fortunate to have some fun clients. Nick Magazine, Klutz Books, and DC are great to work with - the assignments are always rewarding and challenging. Most clients want the stuff to be "you". Hopefully, that's why they hired you. But again, ultimately, you do whatever the client asks you to do.

CLOUGH: Your "Shock of Recognition" strip for the Comics Journal Special edition has one of your best punchlines and best uses of subverting expectations. Have you always enjoyed drawing/reading violent humor? What do you like to give your comics such a sense of viscerality? Is it your intent to shock while provoking laughter?

KERSCHBAUM: This strip isn't even that old and I can't remember how I came to it. I know I struggled with the assignment initially because I wasn't sure I'd ever experienced a "shock of recognition." I generally shy away from writing about myself. I'm pretty sure the ending just came to me and then I worked out the pacing and set-up. Even though it's obviously a fictional story, it ended up being a fair dramatization of my "a-ha" moment.

I think I've always found that type of humor funny. I strongly suspect there is a close connection between fear and laughter in the brain. I remember seeing An American Werewolf in London and thinking how cool it was. It had me laughing one second and cringing the next, then it would have you doing both at the same time. The funny bits in that movie made the scary bits scarier and vice versa.

CLOUGH: Another thing I've noticed in your work is that you love to contrast word and image, with one undermining the other for comedic effect. Your "Cartoonist Anonymous" strip is one long series of self-deprecatory jokes merged with blowhard text, while "Little Billy Blumpkin" matches up fairy tale-text about a snail speeding away with panel after panel of a snail barely moving. What is it about subverting reader expectations that appeals to you as a humorist?

KERSCHBAUM: Yeah, this is just a gimmick, I suppose. I think there's something funny about saying or implying one thing and then blatantly doing or showing another. The contradiction creates a tension that, hopefully, you can generate some laughs out of.

CLOUGH: I've always looked forward to seeing your Christmas-themed comics. "Snowballs" shows us what a snowman looks like naked, "The Snowman" tells us why a snowman needs a scarf, and the snowman evolution panel you did was brilliant in its simplicity of design. Do you enjoy doing holiday-specific jokes?

KERSCHBAUM: I enjoy sending homemade cards or mini-comics to friends for the holidays. Most of my friends and family don't see a lot of the work I do, so the feedback I get from them is always interesting. I've even had some ask me to stop sending them.The evolution of a snowman card is one of those things that came to me in a flash. I was convinced that I must have seen it somewhere, forgot about it, and then remembered it as if I thought it up. So I spent a lot of time looking for it and asking friends if they'd seen it before (thus ruining the gag for them when they got it in the mail).

CLOUGH: For whom did you do IF NEW YORK CITY WAS THE WORLD? Was it a syndicated strip first, or did you pitch it as a book?

KERSCHBAUM: As I mentioned earlier, they ran in a very small Manhattan weekly called the Chelsea Clinton News (named after the NYC neighborhoods, not the ex-president's daughter.) I don't know how that came about, but I recall that all the editors there hated it and weren't shy about letting me know when I dropped off the strip. At the time, I had done illustration work for Carol Publishing. I think I had met the art director there, Steven Brower, at United Media. He liked my work and offered to pitch it at the next editorial meeting. That was a huge break!

CLOUGH: You’ve mentioned a few times about editors, friends or readers complaining about your work? What kind of effect does this have on you? Does it make you glad that you at least get some kind of reaction?

KERSCHBAUM: It’s not really a big deal. With the editors at the Chelsea Clinton News, they were old-timers who didn’t like the way my strip was soiling their newspaper. When introduced to one editor for the first time, I reached out to shake his hand and he just said, “Oh, it’s you.” I’m still friends with the guy I sent the dirty Christmas comic to. Still, it is nice that my comics always get some kind of reaction!

The Wiggly Reader

CLOUGH: You were an early Xeric grant recipient. What kind of impact did this have on you in terms of encouraging you to keep making comics?

KERSCHBAUM: Although I was doing well with my illustration, I was having trouble finding anyone interested in my comics or cartooning. The few magazines that would run my gags had either ceased publication or changed editors. I couldn't find a publisher for my longer comics, either. Kitchen Sink Press tried to publish a trade paperback of a comic I did about a family reunion, but as luck would have it, it was solicited at the same time DC killed Superman and they couldn't sell it. A friend and previous Xeric recipient, Stephen Blue, suggested I give it a shot. All in all, it was a great experience, and I seriously doubt I'd be doing comics today if not for it.

CLOUGH: What inspired the astoundingly demented and detailed Abraham Lincoln cover on TWR #2? Do you enjoy creating these finely-detailed scenes with all sorts of "eye-pops" in them?

KERSCHBAUM: Again, the original inspiration for this escapes me. I have always enjoyed working on large, crowded scenes. When I was in elementary school I used to tape 18 x 24 pieces of drawing paper together and draw these huge panoramic scenes. One time, I did a prehistoric landscape filled with dinosaurs and cavemen in little scenes with jokes and gags and I also remember doing a cut-away of the Starship Enterprise showing all the decks and inner workings with the crew running about.

CLOUGH: You really seem to enjoy the humor of cruelty. City Guy/Country Guy, where the title characters are killed off early in the story but are further humiliated even in death, seems to be an example of the way you use cruelty as a form of commentary. That's also true of the story about the dancing robots who get separated, torn into bits and then almost reunited the in most banal way possible. How often do you see yourself as a commentator on our culture and society? What sort of issues do you think humor is best equipped to take on?

KERSCHBAUM: My humor can be cruel. I hate to blame it on my ancestry, but I'm of German descent and I think it may just be innate. That schadenfreude thing.

I'm not trying to comment on culture or society, at least not intentionally. There may be some other psychological reason for that particular bent, but I'm not all that concerned with it. Sometimes a poke in the eye is just a poke in the eye. In fact, I'd generally say that I shy away from making political statements or such in my work. Believe it or not, I'm not looking to offend people or stir up controversy – I prefer my cruelty to be more generic, more random… which is not to say that humor can't be used to address societal ills or whatever. As far as I'm concerned, in the right time and place, nothing is really taboo.

CLOUGH: Your humor matches absurdism with horror on occasion. For example, the strip about the woman finding 2 exact copies of her husband making love, only to find that one is a gigantic lawn beetle masquerading as her husband, is perhaps the single-most disturbing and hilarious series of images I've ever seen. What was your thought process in creating that strip? Were you out to horrify as much (or even more) as you were to amuse?

KERSCHBAUM: This goes back to what I said about American Werewolf in London – that close relationship between scary and funny. When I wrote that strip, I was intentionally trying to be silly and absurd one minute and unnerving or gross the next. But it's all just silliness.

CLOUGH: Your characters often have what Sammy Harkham describes as a "falsely wholesome" appearance to them. They're cartoony and easy to look at, but you rarely rely on "funny drawings" to create laughs. Why is this?

KERSCHBAUM: Well I actually do try and draw "funny" some times, you're probably just not noticing it! But you're right, I don't do it often. I can tell you that when I do have occasion to review old work, it's those "funny" drawings that make me cringe the most. I don't think I'm very successful at it; I avoid it and try to mine the humor elsewhere.

In general, it’s hard for me to track back to how and why I thought something was a funny idea. It’s not something I really think about as part of my creative process. Also, the process or inspiration doesn’t work the same way every time.

Petey and Pussy

CLOUGH: This cat and dog pair seems to have really captured your imagination over the past few years. What inspired their design, with balding human heads on top of very-anatomically accurate bodies?

KERSCHBAUM: In the late 90s, a friend got me an interview with an editor who was in charge of re-launching some major cartoon monthly – like MAD or Cracked – I can't recall the name. Anyway, I met with the editor and he liked my stuff and offered me two bits of advice. First, he said it would be in my own best interest to do recurring characters as all the work would be creator-owned (I assume he meant that if you got lucky and the characters caught on, you'd have a chance to cash in.) Second, he said, "No people with animal heads, I HATE that shit!" or something along those lines. So I went home and sorta cheekily did the opposite. He ended up liking it, but the magazine never happened.

With regard to their "anatomically-correct bodies," it just makes me laugh. People see real dog and cat asses every day and no one thinks twice. Show them a drawing of one and they're repulsed, or giggle, or both.

CLOUGH: The long strip in your new Petey & Pussy book is your longest sustained narrative to date. How did you balance the demands of a longer story with the demands of being a gag cartoonist? Did you feel this story was a sort of summing-up or combination of everything you've done before in terms of gag-style and techniques?

KERSCHBAUM: I wrote that story in bits and pieces over the course of several years. I then peppered it with little jokes and gags that I'd also collected over the years in notes and sketchbooks. Then I rewrote it making sure it flowed and there was a strong story arc and point to it all. When I was done, it was nearly twice as long as it ended up in the final book. At the time, I knew I would never be able to finish something that long - I didn't have the time or the energy. So I edited it to the bare bones. As it ends up, it still took almost four years to draw and ink.

CLOUGH: How long had you been working on this longer story? When did Fantagraphics pick it up?

KERSCHBAUM: When it was almost done, I sent it to some publishers. Surprisingly, a few were interested. It took me a long time to figure out what to do. In fact, I shelved it, finished, for nearly another year before going with Fantagraphics.

Other Projects

CLOUGH: You've been somewhat absent from the comics scene for the past few years after steadily putting out a new mini-comic every year. Has it been difficult to balance your life as a commercial illustrator with your own work?

KERSCHBAUM: It has of late. But generally, it's not hard. Illustration work tends, for me anyway, to come in spurts, so there's always a little down time.

CLOUGH: Can you talk about the project you've been working on for the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the past four years? Do you see that as a culmination of sorts for your hyper-detailed style of illustration, with every corner packed with small visual or verbal puns, that you've done for others over the years?

KERSCHBAUM: A while back I did an illustration for a puzzle in Nick Magazine. It was the interior of an art museum that was actually a maze. I asked the Met if they would be interested in doing something similar. They were planning to redo their kids/family map and wanted to know what I had in mind. So I proposed, basically, a "Where's Waldo" type picture search using the Museum. So I've spent the past four years researching and photographing the Museum and a making a poster of it. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. The Museum is just an amazing place - it's alive. Not only do they move, rotate and change the art around, I would visit and swear that the walls had moved too! Although the drawing is dense, when I look at it I just think of all the really cool stuff I didn't have room for or missed entirely. But I did the best I could. The way I look at it, it needs to hold up to repeated viewings. If the Met wants to use this for years and years – and I want them to – people have to be able to spot something they didn't see the last time they looked; just like a visit to the Museum itself. I'm very close to being done – the Museum has been very patient but they want it for the upcoming holiday season and I'm very anxious to see what the response will be. I'm also a little nervous. I've been working on it for so long now that I'm not sure what I'm going to do when it's finished.

CLOUGH: What are you reading these days?

KERSCHBAUM: Funny. I think I read more comics now than I did as a kid.

I start every day by reading the newspaper strip Monty online. Jim Meddick is a good friend, but it's the funniest damn strip. In fact, he won a Reuben for it this year. I've recently started following Richard Thompson's strip, Cul De Sac, too.

I'm reading the old Peanuts reprints. I'm a few volumes behind but they're nice books. I love how mean the strips can be!

I recently enjoyed Mike Dawson's Freddie & Me. There's a brief section about how he remembers things that I thought was revealing and insightful. But it's all good and beautifully drawn.

Alex Robinson's latest, Too Cool To Be Forgotten, was a great read. I think it's his best book to date and that's saying something.

I got the complete Don Martin last Christmas and haven't finished it yet. There's so much of his early work I was unfamiliar with - I had no idea! And, oddly, the stuff that I'd seen before seems different to me now after not having seen it in so long… but I can't really describe how.

Kevin Huizenga's work is fascinating - I get everything he puts out. I also enjoy the Leon Beyond feature he does with Dan Zettwoch.

I've only read one issue of Dungeon by Lewis Trondheim. But I plan to get more of those. Great story. Great art. Very funny.

And I'm a big fan of Bob Fingerman's work. It is so well-crafted and beautifully drawn. I always wanted to be able to draw like him.

I don't get to the comics store that often, but when I do I like to pick up anything new by T. Millionaire, J. Ryan, M. Kupperman, Kaz, Tony Consiglio and Steve Weissman. They're always guaranteed to be quality, funny books.

CLOUGH: What impact have shows like SPX and MOCCA had on your career? Do you feel like part of a community when you attend these shows?

KERSCHBAUM: I enjoy these shows. They can be a bit exhausting even though you're mainly just sitting there. Over the years, I've met some fantastic people there and made some great friends. It's an opportunity to talk shop with talented folks.