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Interviews: On Cartooning

Chris Ware is the author of the award-winning book, Jimmy Corrigan — The Smartest Kid on Earth. He talks about the difficulty of drawing cartoons, and why Tintin never caught on in America.

Tintin and I - Chris Ware self-portrait

Chris Ware
Copyright ©2006 C. Ware

POV: The ligne claire ("clear line") style Hergé employed when drawing the iconic characters of Tintin contrasts with the unusually realistic landscapes and backgrounds of the worlds Tintin visits and inhabits. As Scott McCloud pointed out in his Understanding Comics, this contrast gives the effect of allowing the comic reader to "mask themselves in a character and safely enter a stimulating world." "One set of line," he writes, "allows readers to see; the other to be."

Your own work is graphically striking, the layout meticulously rendered, incorporating elements like toy cutouts. Describe your illustrative strategy or style as you see it. How did you arrive at it? How do you feel it's been most effective? Did you struggle to find it or did it come naturally? When has it not worked for you?

Chris Ware: I'd agree with McCloud, though I think Hergé employed the same so-called "clear line" to create his backgrounds as he did his characters; he simply didn't present the people quite as inertly as the settings, for the reasons you articulate. (There's something very strange and wrong-seeming about drawing realistic eyeballs in comics, at least in the mode of comics where action is carried more by the movement of the characters rather than where narration links disparately framed selected images.)

Joanna

Joanna. Copyright ©2006 C. Ware

I arrived at my way of "working" as a way of visually approximating what I feel the tone of fiction to be in prose versus the tone one might use to write biography; I would never do a biographical story using the deliberately synthetic way of cartooning I use to write fiction. I try to use the rules of typography to govern the way that I "draw," which keeps me at a sensible distance from the story as well as being a visual analog to the way we remember and conceptualize the world. I figured out this way of working by learning from and looking at artists I admired and whom I thought came closest to getting at what seemed to me to be the "essence" of comics, which is fundamentally the weird process of reading pictures, not just looking at them. I see the black outlines of cartoons as visual approximations of the way we remember general ideas, and I try to use naturalistic color underneath them to simultaneously suggest a perceptual experience, which I think is more or less the way we actually experience the world as adults; we don't really "see" anymore after a certain age, we spend our time naming and categorizing and identifying and figuring how everything all fits together. Unfortunately, as a result, I guess sometimes readers get a chilled or antiseptic sensation from it, which is certainly not intentional, and is something I admit as a failure, but is also something I can't completely change at the moment.

Incidentally, I stole this idea of using very carefully composed naturalistic color under a platonic black line more or less directly from Hergé, as there's a certain lushness and jewel-like quality to his pages that also seems to hint at the way we gift-wrap our experiences as memories.

I realize that this is all a rather over-thought, dogmatic and somewhat limiting way of approaching comics, especially if one tries to look at my strips as "good" drawings, because they're not, but it's also allowed me to finally arrive at a point where I'm able to write with pictures without worrying about how I'm drawing something, instead permitting me to concentrate on how the characters "feel." I wouldn't recommend this method to anyone, though; it's just the way I work, though I certainly don't think it's the only way to work in comics at all.

POV: You often return to the same characters: how do you feel about your recurring characters — especially those who've been called semi-autobiographical like Quimby and Jimmy — or others like the Super-man: how real do they become to you as you work and live with them over the years? Do you imagine them having a life independent of the comic?

Asleep

Asleep. Copyright ©2006 C. Ware

Chris: I went through a period of dealing with characters which were essentially regurgitations of American icons, and I've only in the past five years tried to write "real" people into my stories. My single goal is to create people with whom, for better or for worse (and regardless of how embarrassing it sounds) I can "fall in love" and somehow feel something deeply about, and through. All of the earlier characters, like the ones you mention, started out as gag strips and sort of naturally blossomed into more fleshed-out figures, but then dried up and stopped suggesting anything to me. More recent characters like those in the two stories I'm working on now feel like real people to me. I don't think this way of developing as a cartoonist is at all unusual to someone sort of feeling their way as a writer; if I'd been more careful or surgical in my approach, or trained as a writer, maybe I would have arrived at this point much earlier. And of course there's always the possibility that it's an utterly wrongheaded way to think about it all, too.

POV: Describe your working process. Do you work daily? When you begin a comic, do you start with image, or with text? What are the raw materials of a story? Do you always know what is going to happen, or does the story take turns that surprise you?

Chris: As I get older I find myself thinking about stories more and more before I work so that by the time I eventually sit down to write them, I know more or less how it's going to look, start or feel. Once I do actually set pencil to paper, though, everything changes and I end up erasing, redrawing and rewriting more than I keep. Once a picture is on the page I think of about ten things that never would have occurred to me otherwise. Then when I think of the strip at other odd times during the day, it's a completely different thing than it was before I started.

As for my workday, I used to sit down and fritter away my time, but now I work within a more compressed schedule because I spend most of the day looking after my daughter. I've also given up my weekly deadline to allow the work to happen at a more natural pace, and I think I can say that for these two reasons I'm genuinely happy for the first time in my adult life. I'm glad I put myself through the true misery of deadlines for 20 years, but if I can't do it now for its own sake, then I shouldn't be doing it at all.

POV: Marshall McLuhan, author of the 1967 book The Medium is the Massage, wrote about the differences between what he called "hot" media versus "cool" media. Hot media, like movies and radio, he said, were dense with data and therefore demanded only a passive audience, whereas "cool" media, lo-fi and utilizing iconic forms, required active, involved audience participation. His examples of "cool" media are television and comics.

Do you agree with McLuhan? Does that connect with what you wrote about cartooning in the  intro to the McSweeney's comics issue you edited? You said: "Cartooning isn't really drawing, any more than talking is singing… The possible vocabulary of comics is by definition unlimited, the tactility of an experience told in pictures outside the boundaries of words, and the rhythm of how these drawings 'feel' when read is where the real art resides."

Acme

Acme. Copyright ©2006 C. Ware

Chris: Sounds good to me. In fact, I read that book as an impressionable college freshman and it's obvious I completely internalized it and have been spitting it back out uncredited ever since. But I wouldn't classify television as "cool," because to me anything that involves the reader's consciousness to drive and carry a story is an "active" medium, and anything that sort of just pours into the eyeballs and ears is the opposite. (Personally, I'm most moved by music, so my mentioning this is not a value judgment.)

What I was trying to peck out and articulate in the McSweeney's introduction was the difference between seeing and reading in terms of the mechanics of comics, and to find where the real "feeling" is in the medium, because I don't necessarily think it's in the drawing.

POV: Graphic novels and comics have become popular even among mainstream audiences right now, especially with movie adaptations of non-superhero comics like V for Vendetta, Sin City, American Splendor, Ghost World, A History of Violence, and, just out at the time of this interview, Art School Confidential.  In the United States, graphic novel sales have more than tripled to $245 million in recent years. Yet bookstores still often have a hard time deciding where to shelve them: some finally have been given their own section, but often you have to look in Humor. Nearly every review or article written about them still includes a definition, as if a reader would have no preconceived idea of what a comic or graphic novel is, implying that comics are  largely misunderstood. Why do you think it's taken so long for comics and graphic novels to become as popular as they are now, and why are they still so misunderstood? In your McSweeney's introduction, you wrote: "Comics are not a genre, but a developing language." I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about that.

Lunchroom

Lunchroom. Copyright ©2006 C. Ware

Chris: Is that really true, though? I don't think that people are necessarily going to films simply because they were adapted from comics, though I could be wrong. Comics aren't really misunderstood either, they've just been mostly silly for the past century, and those genre-centered stories have found their way into the movie theaters over the past couple of decades because a generation who grew up reading them has, well, grown up. Yet there are more artists doing good work now in comics than ever before, and I think some readers sense that there's something about the disposition of the person who wants to grow up to be a cartoonist that somehow allows him or her to be able to see and comment on our world in a way that's maybe a little more clear-seeming (or, in its most immature but still valuable form, judgmental). Also, it's a way of literally experiencing someone else's vision with a purity that I don't think any other medium offers; there are no technical, electronic or financial limitations; one only has to work harder to improve. Lately I think a new attitude has prevailed that comics aren't inherently an Art form, but that some cartoonists are genuinely artists.

As for the shelving problem, it's due partly to a slow erosion of the content that's filled comics for decades now in favor of more self-motivated work, because, I think, such work is simply more interesting; the kids who grew up reading Mad magazine drew the undergrounds, and the kids who read the undergrounds drew "alternative" comics and the kids who read alternative comics are likely drawing something like manga. This generation will get jobs at the New Yorker and NBC and Random House and start to hire manga artists rather than the cartoonists of my generation.

POV: Although some have approached its widespread popularity, there is no exact parallel to Tintin in American comics. Why do you think this is so? What in American comics comes closest to Tintin and approximating the cult of Tintin? In other media?

Chris: Tintin was fundamentally too sexless to really catch on in America. There are hardly any girls in Hergé's stories, and there's also a peculiar sense of responsibility and respect in Tintin that is antithetical to the American character, or at least that of the budding individualist nine-year-old boy who just wants to set things on fire and has been weaned on much more outrageous stories. I'm not even sure if it's fair to say that there is an analog in American culture to Tintin, actually. I read a few serialized episodes in a magazine my mom subscribed to for me when I was a kid and it made me feel really, really weird; I didn't like it at all. I could tell that it was "approved" and "safe" and it immediately bored me, because it didn't seem to have anything to do with what I thought of as the "real" adult world, which was for me at that time superpowers and crimefighting. (I like Tintin now, of course.)

POV: Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Lichtenstein, and other artists like Raymond Pettibon, have certainly been influenced by comics and have incorporated elements of them into their paintings. (Warhol was particularly influenced by Hergé.) And of course, Art Spiegelman really struck a nerve with a literary and a mainstream audience with Maus; your book Jimmy Corrigan — The Smartest Kid on Earth was received, and sold very well. In the last few years, a number of literary journals have been devoting space to comics; the New York Times magazine began serializing comics in 2005, beginning with your own.

Although for years comics have been denigrated as a so-called "low art" category, it appears they're becoming more widely accepted and perhaps even validated as a form of art and a long literary narrative. Would you agree with this? Is "form" the right word here? Do you think that this kind of validation is inhibiting in any way, that comics are in danger of becoming less rebellious or creatively free because they're more accepted and being published in the mainstream?

Chris: "Form" seems fine, and sometimes I use the word "language," and while I am genuinely happy that I don't have to explain that I'm not an animator anymore when someone asks me what it is I do, I do worry that beginning cartoonists could feel somewhat strangled by the increasing critical seriousness comics has received of late and feel, like younger writers, that they have to have something to "say" before they set pen to paper. Many cartoonists feel even more passionate about this idea than I do, vehemently insisting that comics are inherently "non-art" and poop humor or whatever it is they think it is, but that attitude is a little like insisting that all modern writing should always take the form of The Canterbury Tales.

I'm all for anything and everything in comics; I started drawing them with the specific goal of finding out whether or not they were capable of expressing things other than jokes and contempt. To me, Robert Crumb is a perfect artist because he's one of the most visually sensitive people alive yet he's widely also known as one of the world's great curmudgeons, simply because his emotional range is so wide and his ability to see the world so perspicacious; all artists should hope to be so pluralistic. I do worry that museum shows and literary magazine appearances might start to cloud the general readership's ability to see comics clearly, as anything that's presented as high art immediately blurs a viewer's perceptions with thinking and theory, but I think it also means that more talented and thoughtful people will be attracted to it as a medium. With McSweeney's, which you've mentioned already, it wasn't my intention to elevate anything; all I wanted to do was show what I think of as good comics to people who might not otherwise have seen them, and demonstrate that cartooning could be a serious, involving, moving medium.

POV: Do you think it's also fair to say that a division or tension exists within the world of American comics, between the mainstream daily syndicated comic strip world or, say the New Yorker cartoon world, and the comics underground/graphic  novel world?

Chris: Maybe there used to be, but I think pretty singularly due to the efforts of Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly (and David Remnick and Ted Genoways) that that distinction is largely eroding, at least between the New Yorker and alternative comics. If there is any separation between all of these various so-called outlets, however, it only has to do with each outlet's relative artistic freedom and whether something was done to please an editor and/or perceived readership, which hasn't been my experience with either alternative comics or the New Yorker.

If I could, I would like to mention here that comics are NOT illustration, any more than fiction is copywriting. Illustration is essentially the application of artistic technique or style to suit a commercial or ancillary purpose; not that cartooning can't be this (see any restaurant giveaway comic book or superhero media property as an example), but comics written and produced by a cartoonist sitting alone by him- or herself are not illustrations. They don't illustrate anything at all, they literally tell a story.

POV: How is cartooning different for you than working in other genres, as a creative process? Do you consider yourself a storyteller or an artist, or a hybrid of both? Do you think it's difficult for a comic artist to find serious acceptance for work in other artistic and literary genres or in film? What has your own experience been?

Chris: Not to be obtuse, but I guess I consider myself a cartoonist first, though I was "trained" as a painter/printmaker/sculptor. If there's still any resistance to cartooning in the nuts-and-bolts world of acquiring the means of survival, it's probably mostly on the pay scale. If graphic novels are selling really well and are "growing the book market" or whatever it is a businessman would say about them, I don't see it in the remuneration offered by some of the publishers. My prose-writing friends have amazed me with the figures they've quoted being offered for first books, easily double or triple that for what I've heard for newer cartoonists. A good portion of all of the various comic books and so-called graphic novels that are appearing right now are probably assembled, scanned and delivered as printable files by the cartoonists themselves, and this is in addition to the painstaking, difficult and self-worth-challenging task of drawing (and learning to draw) them all in the first place. In short, cartoonists are all paid more poorly than a prose author would ever be, and this isn't even factoring in all of this extra work. How many prose authors have to set their own type, do their own covers and learn production for offset printing so that the ink traps properly? Cartooning is an artistic commitment that requires the full attention and passion of the artist on every level; one should not get into it if one expects to do anything more than produce a book or a story that is exactly as one wants it to be.

As for "storytelling," I think this is one of comics' esthetic hurdles at the moment, which was the novelist's problem 150 years ago: namely, to take comics from storytelling into that of "writing," the major distinction between the two to me being that the former gives one the facts, but the latter tries to recreate the sensation and complexities of life within the fluidity of consciousness and experience. As far as I'm concerned, that's really all I've been trying to do formally for the past decade or more with comics, and it's certainly time-consuming, since it has to be done with drawings, not words. Hergé actually was one of the first to try this, I think.

POV: Hergé underwent a period of despair and anxiety during which he suffered recurring nightmares filled with whiteness — certainly iconic dreams for a cartoonist! Eventually, after psychoanalysis, he emerged with a new direction: Tintin in Tibet, with its stark alpine landscapes and minimalist cast and story, was a major departure for Hergé. Do you have periods when you lose faith in your work? How have you handled them? What do you feel is your greatest creative or artistic accomplishment?

Chris: I lose faith every time I have to start a new page, and this is no joke. I'm really glad you're bringing this up because I've occasionally been criticized over the past couple of years for publicly "complaining" about how difficult drawing comics is, yet I've only mentioned it so that the younger cartoonists who are trying it out and finding it difficult and painful realize that they're not alone. There's not really any set way of learning how to do this, and it's always a struggle to improve, and, more importantly, see accurately whether or not one's work is communicating any shred of feeling or truth at all.

POV: How does politics influence or impact your work in comics (or not)? Has it had a lesser or greater effect over the years?

Chris: Drawing the kind of comics that I do takes so long that to specifically address something as transitory as a political matter in it would be about as effective as composing a symphony with hopes that it would depose a despot. On top of that, I personally don't think that my version of art is the best way to deal with political issues at all, or, more specifically, the place to make a point. Not that art can't, but it's the rare art that still creates something lasting if its main aim was purely to change a particular unfair social structure. (For example, I'd hate to have been a cartoonist in the 1970s and be only able to claim a body of anti-Nixon comics.) I admit that this is an entirely arguable point, however, and I defer to anyone who takes issue with me about it, because I change my mind about it often and I'll agree with anyone just so I don't have to talk about it.

Besides, it's not like there aren't enough political cartoonists out there already who are much smarter and more clear-headed than I am. About the only times I've allowed myself to be topical and opinionated have been in the fake ads in my comics, as I consider that to be the "throwaway" parts of what I do; I know that I'm living in a country where all needs and comforts for a large part of the population have been met frequently at great cost to other parts of the world, however, so writing stories about its inhabitants takes on a sort of responsibility in and of itself. Fundamentally, I have no idea how the world works, though I am trying to figure it out.

POV: What are you working on now?

Chris: Two long stories, "Rusty Brown" and "Building Stories," which I'm serializing in my regular comic book, "The ACME Novelty Libary," and which I'm now self-publishing.

Rebecca Bengal conducted this interview via email for POV

Related Links:
Chris Ware
The artist's website, from publisher Fantagraphic Books.





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It was obvious to me that Tintin in Tibet had to be the climax of an intense personal drama — played out so movingly by Hergé in the snowy and desolate plains of Himalaya. All I had to do was unearth the story...”

— Anders Østergaard

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