Famous Graphic Novelists Discuss Inspiration, Education, and Digitization

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When a panel of four esteemed graphic novelists have only an hour to address an auditorium packed with eager fans, it’s unlikely they can cover very much in very great depth. And thus it was when Ben Katchor, Mimi Pond, Anders Nilsen, and Vanessa Davis gathered at USC for “Illustrating the Point” at the L.A. Times Festival of Books a few weeks ago. Among the top questions they’d lightly touched upon: What other cartoonists have inspired you? What’s the value of higher education for comics artists? And what’s up with the future of digital comics? So here’s my post-event follow-up, in which each of them dive into the details.


But first, the introductions…


Mimi Pond is an illustrator and humorist whose first graphic novel, Over Easy, was just released. She’s created comics for the L.A. Times, National Lampoon, and several other publications. Her television writing credits include Designing Women, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and the first full-length episode of The Simpsons.


Vanessa Davis’s latest comics collection is Make Me a Woman. She’s a Los Angeles based cartoonist and illustrator whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Tablet, and SpongeBob Comics.


Ben Katchor has been creating “picture-story” books for more than two decades. His newest is Hand-Drying in America and Other Stories. He’s an Associate Professor at Parsons, The New School for Design in New York City and produces a monthly strip for Metropolis magazine.


Anders Nilsen has written and illustrated several books, most recently The End. His work’s been featured in Kramer’s Ergot, The Chicago Reader, and the Utne Reader and been translated into several languages. He currently resides in Chicago.

On the Value of Higher Education for Comics Artists…

During the discussion, Mimi questioned the value of Master’s programs in comics such as the one at California College of the Arts (formerly California College of Arts and Crafts, her alma mater). She asked how a comics MFA could be profitable for anyone. Anders pointed out that it’s making money for CCA, to the audience’s amusement. Ben noted that not every school needs to be a trade school. And Vanessa noted that education takes many forms. Here are everyone’s further thoughts.

Mimi Pond: I don’t want to pooh-pooh teaching comics. It’s just that my approach to comics, and really, even, to writing, has been a combination of intuition, reading comics, and learning on the job, through mentors like Shary Flenniken at the National Lampoon, and Mary Peacock, my editor at the Village Voice. I think anyone who makes comics has to at least have developed an innate intuitive visual vocabulary for storytelling from reading comics and watching movies.

I’m sure there are great things taught in these classes. Perhaps my reaction has more to do with that when I was at CCAC, I got nothing but grief for making and liking comics.

Vanessa Davis: Higher education in any form of art is a marvelous opportunity to immerse oneself in the world of that medium. Comics are sort of weird because they have a long history of existing within certain parameters, but its present and future is wide open territory. Comics programs like at CCA, the Sequential Art Workshop, and the Center for Cartoon Studies are exciting because they’re like formal, academic think tanks.

One can be skeptical about such programs, hanging on the old adage of how “you can’t learn how to write, you just write.” But the time, space, and community to work is so rare and hard to get; schoo
l certainly provides that, for a time.

Ben Katchor: A liberal arts education should help us develop a deeper understanding of the history of world culture. Otherwise, we’re just reacting to the narrow and immediate surroundings of the media landscape pushed in front of our eyes by advertisers. It’s no guarantee that you’ll produce better comics, but at least you’ll be a deeper reader of comics and understand what’s going on in your own work.

Anders Nilsen: The value of art school is that it gives a person time and structure to work with focus, which can be difficult to carve out on one’s own. And it connects you a community in a common pursuit. The downsides include coming out with debt that can be like an anchor. Part of the reason I quit grad school was that I realized I could be using the money I was spending on tuition to instead print books, or pay for a studio.

Art school has a high bar in my opinion because there simply is no monetary reward to expect when you’re done. I also do think that art school can, at worst, be a harbor for mediocrity. In school you have a guaranteed audience of instructors and peers whose job it is to take your work seriously, good or bad. And like I said, the institution’s incentive isn’t necessarily quality – whatever that is – but the tuition stream. The outside world is less forgiving, and in some ways can allow for a more interesting cultural conversation.

I think art school can have value, but students should be as clear as possible about what they expect to get out of it.


On Print and Digital Comics Formats…

Mimi mentioned that she didn’t feel comfortable with digital graphic novels, and much prefers the tactility of print. Vanessa said that it was really a matter of finding the best format, and that people’s opinions don’t really matter, since the move to ebooks is happening anyway. Ben defended electronic books by pointing out that since pre-press is digital, digital is actually closer to the original art. Anders saw benefits for the print medium inasmuch as publishers are looking at the possibilities of books that iPads can’t duplicate. Below he cites his own 40-foot accordion-fold book as an example, while others also expand their views.

Mimi Pond: I think there are always going to be people who enjoy the tactile experience of curling up with a book. Maybe I’m the Luddite here with the button hook, but is there anything so wrong with a book? It’s a medium that has been around for a long time. I think when film and recorded music came into being, people predicted that live performance would become a thing of the past, and that hasn’t happened.

Of course ebooks are the wave of the future, but I think there’s room for print as well.

Vanessa Davis: I think one of my favorite things about comics is that, apart from what the market maybe indicates, comics can be powerful in any form. Short, long, funny, serious; in a book and as a book, on Tumblr, in a magazine, etc. It’s kind of like “finding the right nib” and how that can turn you into a genius. Maybe you’re not cut out to be a long-form graphic novelist, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make brilliant comics. So the internet, the world of self-publishing, all provide those opportunities for finding your niche.

As for people’s opinions not mattering, I really don’t think they do. It’s like, maybe you love talking on the phone to talk to your loved ones. You hate Facebook or email. So talk on the phone! People complained about email, and now even email is basically obsolete. Technology and media are changing so fast: faster than people can even develop an opinion, and despite what our opinions even are. I guess my feelings about that are just matter-of-fact, rather than positive or negative.

Ben Katchor: In working for reproduction, it’s helpful to produce and manipulate images in the print medium you’re working with, such as etchers working on copper plates, silk-screen printers cutting stencils, etc. As the pre-press for all mass-reproduction is digital, and as there’s a sensitive interface between hand and computer, it makes sense to work in a digital environment.

As far as digital reading goes, a well-adjusted monitor gives the reader a wider range of color than print along with a glowing backlit quality: something that painters had always dreamed of achieving.

Anders Nilsen: I’m not sure how conscious publishers and artists are about the potential of printed books. When I proposed doing Rage of Poseidon as an accordion book, for example, I wasn’t really thinking of it as a way to subvert the ebook model or whatever. I was just interested in playing with the possibilities. Maybe that was part of Drawn & Quarterly’s calculation, but I’d guess it was similarly a secondary concern.

Really, I think that comics have always been this slightly ill-fitting category that transcends format, and so a lot of cartoonists are sort of restless about it, looking for different ways for the work to exist. Chris Ware’s Building Stories is a great example. There’s nostalgia for the constrained forms of the past: newspaper strips, magazine serialization, the pamphlet, etc. Comics is no longer the bastard stepchild. It has means and the freedom to create its own forms, so there’s a bunch of playing around with how to best exploit that freedom. Probably the web and the iPad will be a part of that, and certain forms will naturally find their place there, while books will work better for others.

In some ways the rise of the graphic novel is imposing a new sort of constraint, too, though, in that students are gravitating toward telling longer, much more involved stories and the short forms of the past are, I think, falling by the wayside a bit.

On Cartoon Inspiration…


Mimi Pond: A lot of New Yorker cartoonists influenced me profoundly. Charles Addams, Peter Arno, R. Taylor, George Price, William Steig, Helen Hokinson, Thurber. Their work had such a sophisticated elegance.

I am not sure that I really realized the impact of Peanuts on my work until I saw the original artwork in the Masters of American Comics show when it was at the Hammer Museum and MOCA back in 2005 [see above]. Peanuts was so ubiquitous for so long that I think everyone took it for granted, like wallpaper. Seeing it large, at full scale, I could really appreciate the elegance and economy of his work. Also I studied Peanuts for drawing facial expressions. Eve
ryone knows those parentheses around Charlie Brown’s eyes indicate a raw vulnerability. Charles Schulz’s humor is also extremely sophisticated and existential for someone in the mainstream. You marvel at the simplicity of it and also the darkness!

Both the early, Kurtzman-era Mad and the 1960s Mad introduced a level of subversion into my life I couldn’t have found anywhere else at that age. I believe Harvey Kurtzman is the architect of the modern American sense of humor. He completely shaped the sensibilities of multiple generations. Without Kurtzman, I don’t think Steve Martin and Robin Williams and SCTV and Saturday Night Live – or even Mike Nichols and Elaine May or Lenny Bruce – would have been the same, to name just a few. His influence cannot be overstated. Also the artists he employed to draw Mad were so incredibly good. It gave me something to aspire to.


Vanessa Davis: I was drawn to children’s books the same way I’m drawn to comics today: by the art. I loved books like The Witch Who Was Afraid of Witches, illustrated by Karen Gundersheimer; Leo the Late Bloomer – I don’t remember what may have prompted my parents to give me that book, ha; Pippi Longstocking, D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, The Funny Little Woman, illustrated by Blair Lent; Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina; The Teeny Tiny Woman by Barbara Seuling; everything by Shel Silverstein and Maurice Sendak. I think it was because I liked drawing with lines. I liked the settings, the cozy order of the worlds in children’s books. The drawing felt somehow attainable, too. I think I knew I could do it one day. It made sense to me.

Betty and Veronica drew me in because I was seduced by their fashionable, sexy, social themes. I loved the clothes, the hair, the suburban, teenage scenes.

As I got older I was exposed to the “murky, edgy” alternative, punk-y comics. My aunt got me a copy of Twisted Sisters 2, edited by Diane Noomin, when it came out and I was in high school. I was obsessed with the pieces by Debbie Drechsler, Aline Crumb, and Phoebe Gloeckner. I learned about Julie Doucet from reading about her in Sassy magazine. All of these cartoonists had these drawing style tendencies I could really relate to, and they were telling amazing, dark, real stories that completely magnetized me. That was the beginning of me appreciating comics as an adult.


Ben Katchor: The stories found in the comic books of my day – 1960s Marvel and DC – bored me because of the narrowness of their concerns: superheroes and adventure. Although they were not as sanitized as the approved children’s books I found in the library, the plots felt like poor excuses for the fight scenes. It was only in the drawings of a few artists – Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, Wally Wood, John Severin – that I found any real interest.

Within the newspapers I saw as a child – Journal American, Daily News, and New York Mirror were a few survivors of that rich culture of early-American comics: Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, Our Boarding House, and Smilin’ Jack. Through the unique drawing style and language of their authors these strips exuded a sense of tragedy and humor that was far beyond anything I saw in contemporary comic books.


Anders Nilsen: Tintin and the superhero stuff I was steeped in as a kid left me with an interest in telling longer, more involved stories, and an appreciation for stories that kind of sweep you along. I think the prior generations of American cartoonists grew up more with newspaper strips and for example, Mad, which were much shorter, and more about making a point in a panel or a page. Herge did slapstick really well, something that at least intuitively seems hard to do in a static medium, since it involves surprise. And he did kind of amazing dream sequences, which I’ve thought a lot about, since dreams have been a big part of some of my work. A lot of Herge’s stories also have an undercurrent of irony and emotional complexity that you wouldn’t expect at first. They can be very strange and unresolved at times. That’s certainly something I’m interested in, is combining slapstick and entertainment, with something more complicated and maybe deeper.

I’d actually put Chris Claremont’s X-Men in a similar category. On the one hand they were just soap operas where the people had super powers. On the other hand they dealt with real moral conundrums, and would sometimes include an act at the International Criminal Court at the Hague, or whatever.

Weirdo fascinated me but was often a bit too caustic. What I really loved about it was the covers. Crumb’s covers showed this kind of controlled exuberance for the medium that is amazing. They’re the best.

Raw was like a lesson in the possibilities of the medium. It was so wide ranging, and sort of perfectly fit my varied interests, from comics to punk to art. It touched on politics without being didactic. It was always unexpected. Even the stuff I didn’t like was interesting.

Jason Lutes and Chester Brown made a powerful impact on me. Lutes because he was – is – telling pretty simple straightforward stories, but in long form. The characters and situations were very real and engaging. He was doing a sort of adult version of what I liked about Tintin. Chester’s Ed the Happy C
is, to me, an utter masterpiece. I love the way you can tell he doesn’t really know what he’s doing at first. There’s a really strong feeling of watching something completely unique unfold before your eyes, he’s just inventing the craziest stuff and trusting that it will all add up to a perfectly coherent story. And it does. It’s like magic. With all those guys I really appreciated the straightforward drawing, too. The styles are all very individual, but they all seemed to be interested in a way of drawing that pointed to the story, rather than calling attention to itself as a style, or trying to be impressive.


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