Charles Burns, Chip Kidd, Seth and Chris Ware Panel (Part One of Three)

Posted by on March 31st, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Moderated by Jeet Heer; transcribed by Rachel West

MARC NGUI: Hi, thanks for coming out. My name is Marc Ngui. I am a local cartoonist guy. I’m honored to be able to introduce this panel: it’s going to be very interesting. I’d like to remind you that the [PEN] petition is located in the bookstore, and if you haven’t signed it already it would be really good if you could sign it on your way out.

A few words about this afternoon’s panel: It will examine the influence of classic comics on the work of our guest cartoonists and designers. And one thing I think it would be good to keep in mind is that up until recently there’s been very little opportunity for formal education for cartoonists. And most cartoonists you meet or come across are self-taught. And they learn their craft by analyzing the works of past cartoonists they admire, and talking to their peers. So personally I am really looking forward to this discussion for two reasons: One, to learn more about the history of comics which is sadly lost but is currently undergoing a revival, thanks in a large part to the works of our guests, and also to learn about the education of a cartoonist. So that’s what I’m really excited about.

So now I guess I’d like to welcome to the stage our guests. And the first person is Charles Burns. He is the creator of the comics El Borbah, Skin Deep, Big Baby and Black Hole. His illustration work as appeared regularly on the cover of The Believer as well as in Time and The New Yorker. And he is presently, recently completed the collected comic Black Hole; it’s available outside. Charles Burns. [Applause.]

And our next guest is Chris Ware. He’s the creator of the regularly serialized comic The Acme Novelty Library, and the graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth. Chris Ware. [Applause.]

And next is Seth, he’s the creator of the comic series Palookaville as well as the designer of the 25-volume Complete Peanuts. He collaborated with his father on a memoir of the Great Depression entitled Bannock Beans and Black Tea, and his latest graphic novel is Wimbledon Green. Seth. [Applause.]

Our fourth guest is Chip Kidd, the associate art director of Alfred A. Knopf. His first novel The Cheese Monkeys was a national best-seller and The New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He is author-at-large for Pantheon and the author of Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz, and Batman Collected. Chip Kidd. [Applause.]

And today this discussion will be moderated by Jeet Heer, who is a Toronto-based journalist who focuses on arts and culture and is an expert on the history of comics: Jeet. [Applause.]

And then, just one final round of thanks to Random House of Canada for supporting Charles Burns, Chris Ware, and Chip Kidd’s appearance at the festival, and also to Drawn & Quarterly for supporting Seth’s appearance at the festival. Thanks.

JEET HEER: Thanks to Marc Ngui for the introduction. Marc is — in addition to being many other things — he is also a fine young cartoonist, himself. So, the way this is going to work is, I’m going to ask questions of each of the artists about their work, we’ll have a hopefully free-flowing discussion, and then in the last half hour we’ll open the floor to the audience. And Charles Burns just spoke at 2 and he discussed some of the things that are pertinent to what we want to start with so it might be good to just go back to that.

Now, Charles, your father also wanted to be a cartoonist, or was very interested in cartooning, right?

CHARLES BURNS: Yeah, it was pretty unusual then. I grew up during the ’50s and ’60s, or, was born in the ’50s, and at that time there was a real reaction to comics. There was a whole bunch of horror comics that were out there and they were really, really looked at as being… sub… Not subhuman, but, not something that’s really acceptable for any normal person to read. And so my father actually liked comics, would have collections of classic comic strips around the house and from the library, so that was part of my growing up, an acceptance of that, but also just being exposed to a wide range of classic comics as well as things like these collections of Mad comics that were around. I don’t know that I was supposed to be reading those collections, but I would sneak into his office and pull them off the shelves.

HEER: Well, these were the ’50s so Mad was still seen as subversive…

BURNS: Yeah, and it actually was; if you look through some of those stories, there are several surprisingly grotesque and very odd, violent stories…

HEER: Yeah, I know, that’s actually an interesting point, ’cause when you say you’re influenced by Mad, I think one of the things people should bear in mind is it’s not the Mad that they might have known. You’re here with the original Harvey Kurtzman Mad… Kinda grotesque.

BURNS: Yeah, there were parodies, but there were also… they weren’t funny. There was something, for me, anyway, when I was reading, there was nothing… I didn’t understand the references, of course, but they certainly weren’t funny.

HEER: You were looking at some of these things before you were actually reading, and that’s interesting, how it is to be a child trying to decipher pictures. You’re reading pictures before you’re reading words.

BURNS: Yeah, the other example I was showing in my talk was Hergé’s Tintin. Those stories are very linear and very clear, if you don’t know how to read you can still follow what Tintin’s doing. Whereas with Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad, he was doing parodies of Mickey Mouse, the famous “Mickey Rat,” I think that’s what it was. But there were cultural references that I didn’t know, like [what] the Howdy Doody Show is—probably a lot of people don’t know what that is either—but it was still very strong graphic images that really stuck with me, in a very strong atmosphere.

HEER: OK. There’s one other person that wasn’t mentioned in the previous talk but was also a very, like Hergé, an artist that’s very clear, which is Chester Gould. Now, you grew up reading Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, right?

BURNS: That was in the newspaper. I mean, Chester Gould worked on Dick Tracy for years and years, I guess it started in the ’30s, and he finally retired, I’m not sure exactly what year, but I think it was in the ’70s. And he was… I mean, every stage of the story… is interesting to me, even the very… Even when it starts getting very weird in the ’60s, where he goes off to the moon, where they have the Moon Maid, and it starts getting very science fiction-y. It’s still maintained its very idiosyncratic, strange world. Speaking of strange worlds… [Laughter.]

HEER: So, since we were just talking about Chester Gould, Seth, do you want to talk a little bit about Wimbledon Green?: Because there are a couple of cartoonists that you can see in Wimbledon Green. Chester Gould is one of them, and also Harold Gray, who did Little Orphan Annie, and also, I guess, John Stanley’s Little Lulu is in there quite a bit.

SETH: Yeah … The book was produced in a very kind of haphazard manner. In that it was in my sketchbook and it was not intended really to be a book. It was just an exercise in trying out certain kinds of storytelling and the subject matter was very off-the-cuff, so, to a big degree, I was just sort of making it up as I went along. And when I finished the first section of the book, I realized it needed an adventure story in the middle, so I went back and I drew like a long adventure story. And pretty clearly when I sat down — since I hadn’t really done an adventure story before — I thought, “Well, what do I like in an adventure story?” And I thought, “Well, the two things I like are Little Orphan Annie and Dick Tracy.” So, the two parts of it are pretty clearly… Like, the first part is Chester Gould and then part two is … Oh, no, the first part is Harold Gray, Little Orphan Annie; and the second part was inspired by Gould.

And I boiled down in my mind, what do I like about the way these guys tell stories? And for Harold Gray, it was just, like… The characters never shut up. Little Orphan Annie just talks and talks and talks away in this chipper little voice, where she just analyzes everything she’s doing, and she goes, “Gosh it’s good to be up this morning. There’s some people who don’t like to mop a floor but I love moppin’”… [Laughter.] So I knew it would give me a chance for my character to just talk away about how he felt about things.

HEER: Yeah, there are a lot of monologues in Little Orphan Annie, and it’s… a narrative device to summarize the plot.

KIDD: No wonder she was an orphan. [Laughter.] Who could put up with that shit?

SETH: It was really funny the way that strip worked, because sometimes I felt like it was almost like if … Gray ever had the characters shut up for a second they might stop and think about what was going on [laughter], have a realization, but they had to just keep chattering constantly to… I guess to reinforce his political viewpoint or something, always keeping it out in the front. But that was, like… So I took that basically as that central point there.

And then with Gould, what always struck me about his work is… The characters are basically cardboard characters. Certainly, Dick Tracy, you feel nothing for him personally, but it’s the obsessive relentlessness of the character that appeals to you, the way he will track down one of these villains in this procedural method, like, bit by bit unrelentingly following them. In fact, the only characters you really have any feeling for in Dick Tracy are the villains.

BURNS: That’s true.

SETH: Because they’re the only ones who express any human feeling: fear, or desperation, as Dick slowly tracks them down. So I really wanted to get that kind of feeling between those two, and that sort of was the underpinning of that.

HEER: Sure, sure. And do you want to say something about John Stanley’s Little Lulu? Because it seems like the Wimbledon Green character is really a lot like Tubby.

SETH: Yeah, I think that was pretty unconscious on my part. It was only near the end of the book that I realized that he was a lot like Tubby. Tubby is a character, is a very appealing character, from Little Lulu. He had his own series for a while, too. But John Stanley wrote him as a character who is so perfectly self-possessed that he had no understanding of his own flaws. He sees himself… He’s a little short, little round fat character much like Wimbledon, but he sees himself as like a beautiful specimen.

CHRIS WARE: Much like the rest of us.

SETH: And he’s full of self-congratulation, and he takes on these roles like where he’s a detective or he’s the spider, and he’s just got a rich fantasy life and is very self-possessed, and I realized that without really planning it, a lot of John Stanley’s thinking went into this book too. Even like the comic books I made up within the story are, kind of, the kind of comic books John Stanley would have made up, the way that the characters operate, the way… the humorous setup in them, I’m so familiar from reading all those Little Lulu comic books that I think that just came out in a sort of unself-concious way.

HEER: Yeah, yeah. Actually, if we could just return to Charles for a second, because you mentioned about Dick Tracy that the villains are the sort of the great part about the strip and they’re always very sort of physically deformed. I mean the great famous villains are people like Pruneface and Flattop, so, Charles, that must have had an influence on you, the idea of physical deformity in the character’s face as…

BURNS: Certainly. That was one of the cool strips that was out there, I remember like clipping my Crime Stoppers’ Textbook in the Sunday Pages, there’d be this little notebook thing that would tell you how to, you know, how to be your own detective or how to avoid crime… anyway.

HEER: OK. And Chris, you’ve been influenced by a bunch of different cartoonists but did you want to talk about Frank King, whose work you’re involved in republishing, in the form of Walt & Skeezix. Just so people know what we’re talking about, this is an example of Frank King’s art. He did a comic strip called Gasoline Alley from 1919 until about some point in the mid-’50s, and this is a sort of famous Gasoline Alley Sunday Page that he did in woodcut style.

WARE: I think that’s probably one of the greatest Sunday pages ever drawn. Actually this particular version of it kind of messes it up, ’cause you need the white space around it to have it really have a kind of gravitas that it actually has, but … So, what do you want me to say? [Laughter.]

HEER: What is it about Frank King’s work that attracts you to it?

WARE: OK. Well, when I was a younger cartoonist and trying to figure out a way to do stories that maybe were a little more serious or thoughtful, I found myself searching through those reprint books of comics, most specifically the Smithsonian Book of Newspaper Comics, which I think we all owned as cartoonists. It’s like they hand it to you and they say “You will have no friends, but you will have this book.” [Laughter.]

And in that particular book I noticed that Gasoline Alley had a particular feeling to it. The more I looked at it and as I read through the other strips in the book, they all had this sort of snappy quality, but there was something about Gasoline Alley — even though the drawing really wasn’t necessarily that much different from other strips in the book — there was something about the mood of it that to me really felt quiet and gentle. And that is part of the story as well because the basic structure of the strip, aside from the fact that every day all the characters got one day older as the strip appeared in the newspaper but also it revolved around a father-son relationship, between a character named Walt Wallet and an orphaned child that he’d found named Skeezix.

HEER: Lots of orphans here.

WARE: Yeah: lots of orphans. Hmm. I wonder what that means. So… Now you messed me up, I forgot what I was saying. [Laughter.]

HEER: Oh, probably, it’s… You’re talking about how the strip revolves around Walt Wallet and Skeezix: and, what are the distinguishing characteristics … and the aging in real time…

WARE: Sorry, I’m like a hospital patient up here… [Laughter.] Well, I basically grew really to love the strip and I started collecting examples of it from collectors at comic-book conventions …There were usually only one type who collected newspaper comic strips, and those were the kinds of guys that would cut out every single one from bound volumes and then pack them in these little thick bags. There was only one guy in Texas, who didn’t have any teeth, who I would buy them from, but I was always really happy to see him at a comic convention: I knew I could get the next year of Gasoline Alley, as he’d razored them out the previous year.

So, over the years as I read it, it never occurred to me that the content of the strip was deeply personal, until one day I told my wife, after I’d been collecting like Gasoline Alley toys and collectibles — because Frank King the cartoonist actually designed them all, which is unusual at that time, and he put the same sort of feeling and warmth into the toys as he did into strip — and I said to my wife, I said, “I think the reason I might like this strip is because it’s about a kid and his dad,” because I’d never actually met my dad: I was raised by my mom and my grandmother. And she said “Uh, no duh.” [Laughter.] So obviously she’d figured it out a long time ago.

HEER: You explained the appeal of Gasoline Alley very well, in terms of how it appeals to family emotions, and I think it’s almost unique among comic strips in being really about a father-and-son relationship, and very close. But isn’t there also a lot of aesthetic influence, in the fact that Frank King dealt with quiet moments, and he wasn’t into melodrama and… Did that also draw you into his world?

WARE: Yeah, definitely, I mean, the strip that was up there before was part of a sequence he would do every year with Walt and Skeezix walking through a Midwestern landscape, just simply commenting on the colors of the autumn leaves, which isn’t exactly like a very snappy, funny subject matter for a Sunday comic, but he did it every year. And the fact that… that’s my stuff… [Laughter.]

So… This is a particular strip I did about a character Rusty Brown, who grows up to be a mean-spirited toy collector and his dad, and it’s loosely based —I shouldn’t say loosely — directly ripped off from [laughter] one of Frank King’s Sunday pages, where the leaves are actually in the foreground. And this is basically his dad collapsing in tears, and Rusty running back to watch the end of Superman on television. [Laughter.]

HEER: Yeah. Well, now that we saw Frank King’s page and your page, I think some of the commonalities are also that you’re viewing the whole page as a unit.

WARE: That’s true, yeah. Did we find out that he was interested in Japanese art specifically, or just in the ceramics? Actually, this is full disclosure now. Jeet and I are working on this book series together and we’ve both gone down to visit Drewanna King, who is Frank King’s granddaughter, together, and spent a great deal of time with her in their basement, looking at old comics, which is…

HEER: It must have been delightful for her.

WARE: Yeah, I’m sure it was. [Laughter.] It doesn’t take much to excite Jeet and me, I think. Sitting in a basement…

HEER: Yeah, it was a bizarre experience because we went down also with our publisher Chris Oliveros, and I think the King family felt, “Who are these three strange, possibly homosexual men [laughter] invading our household?”

But to go back: yeah, Frank King was definitely influenced by Japanese art, which was in vogue at the beginning of the 20th century. But also the colors: that’s one thing that’s quite striking in Frank King’s work, and in your work as well, there’s a real delicacy of colors.

WARE: Yeah. I think he was just pretty much always going for a delicacy of tone, and actually in one of his diaries that we found the last time that we were there, in the back of it, he talks about trying to get at a genuine emotion in comics, which I don’t think a lot of his contemporaries necessarily were aiming for. I think they were probably aiming more for — either, artistically, a snappy, joke-telling sort of thing, or just fame. But he was really… He genuinely was trying to get at something, I think.

HEER: There’s a famous saying: that’s “Artists invent their own ancestors.” That is to say, they go back and they find the sort of influences that they need to nurture their own work. Do you think it’s possible that you, and also Seth and Charles, searched out ancestors that could nourish your own artistic impulses?

WARE: Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of pathetic, actually, but I think it’s true. [Laughter.] At least, in my own case, I’ve always sought out father figures in my life, and I had the luxury of picking and choosing them, and different aspects from different people … certainly the Frank King situation that was what I felt I did. But I think we all do that. … I shouldn’t say this again, I keep saying it everywhere, but drawing comics isn’t easy, it’s a lonely endeavor, and you constantly are asking yourself “Why am I doing this, why am I doing this?” So it’s helpful to find examples of other cartoonists who spent their lives doing it and see how it actually affected them both mentally and physically, so you can prepare yourself. [Laughter.]

HEER: Yeah… Let’s bring Chip into this as well, because he’s already been making many facial gestures, I feel he’s already part of the conversation, but…

CHIP KIDD: The really funny thing is you guys actually are straight, and just the idea of you going down there, and…[Laughter.]

HEER: That’s right, that’s right… a very bizarre trip. … I actually feel it’s a great thing that Chip was in [town] this weekend and is able to join us, because even though in some ways he isn’t a cartoonist directly, he is actually, because… He’s widely considered to be the best book designer in the world, and a book designer that any author would [laughs] … he’s probably widely considered, except by himself. [Laughter.]

KIDD: I always feel like the Peter Lawford to their Rat Pack. [Laughter.] I’m included by default. But it’s a great honor, thank you.

HEER: Well, you have a book out as well … not just a coffee table book, it’s a real career overview, Chip Kidd Book 1. And going through this, I was really struck by the fact that in a lot of ways you’re very similar to a lot of cartoonists, in the sense that you’re an autobiographical artist. You take a lot of aspects of the world around you: your hands are everywhere. On the cover there you can see Chip’s hands.

KIDD: Actual size. [Laughter.]

HEER: Actual size. But in many of the books that you’ve designed, there’s images from your family life, or your furniture, or [laughs]… So it’s a weird thing, but you’ve created an autobiographical art by using a thousand covers of other authors. [Laughs.]

KIDD: Right. I completely just ride on their backs, to assert my own agenda. And it’s worked out pretty well. [Laughter.] Just to backtrack a little bit, speaking to a couple things that had been mentioned. I actually had a tremendous personal interest in Dick Tracy when I was a child, which was, like, my own thing, but I desperately wanted him to search me. [Laughter.] And… But that’s for another time.

Actually, as a kid, obviously I loved the funnies, but it was those serial things, and I couldn’t be bothered with Dick Tracy, because I couldn’t keep track in my head what was happening from week to week, but then my mother bought me… There was this giant big compendium of the strip, from the beginning up to the ’50s or whatever, and it didn’t even have any type on the front. It just had Dick Tracy’s face, and it was huge. And, so, I guess that was some kind of influence … Comic-book characters work like typography, which is something that Chris talks about all the time. But, I finally started reading it that way, so I could read it all the way through, which was an idea that came up with Charles before, earlier today, that, with Black Hole, you can finally read the whole thing through, and ditto Jimmy Corrigan, and, we’re waiting for Seth’s Clyde Fans to be able to do that.

But what really impressed upon me about it was that, OK yeah, he hunted down the villains, and then he killed them, usually —  which was not meaning that Dick Tracy was evil but… He’s police and they have shootouts, and the villains died! And I was a big Batman fan, where the Joker didn’t die, he fell into Gotham Bay and they couldn’t find the body, and he  would just emerge — surprise! — six months later, in something else. So there was that sense of finality about it that seemed to me… like there was a lot more at stake in Dick Tracy. And that was, dramatically, very… It had a big impact on me as a kid.

HEER: OK. [Laughter.]

KIDD: Isn’t that fascinating. [Laughter.]

HEER: But, aside from Dick Tracy, you obviously are very drawn to superheroes, and you’ve done many books where you’ve almost reinvented … our sense of the superhero body, repackaging Plastic Man and Batman, and… How does that fit in with your love of Dick Tracy? Do they come after that, or, concurrent?

KIDD: I think there was the whole escapist fantasy thing of comics, and Batman in particular, and the Batman TV show came out, two years after I was born, and… which made me the perfect target audience for it, frankly, which is not a criticism, but I just got swept all up in it and haven’t grown up yet. But, one question I’ve gotten through the years is, “How have comics … informed your design work?” And this is like Chris, with not being able to see that the reason, one of the reasons he likes Gasoline Alley is this… It’s the father that he’s never had, in a way—but I just didn’t see any relation at all. And then I was being interviewed by a Canadian TV crew who was in my apartment a couple of weeks ago and they brought this up, and I said “I don’t see any correlation.”

And he said, “Well, you’re very careful about separating the type from the images in a lot of your work.”

I said, “Yeah, I call it separation of type and state. Where you know the type has its own little place to live and the image has its own little place to live, and they usually don’t cross the boundaries.”

And he said, “Yeah, well, that’s like comics. You’ve got your person talking, and their words come out of their mouth, and they’re very neatly contained in a balloon, and the caption, if there is one, is neatly contained above the image.”

I’m like… “Fuck!” [Laughter.]

HEER: Well, that’s what I meant to say is that you, you fit on this panel. [Laughter.] You’re not Peter Lawford.

KIDD: Peter Lawford had to work damn hard! [Laughter.]

HEER: Which one of you is Frank Sinatra? [Laughter.]

BURNS: I’m Sammy. [Laughter.]

KIDD: Yeah, but he’s Frank.

HEER: Yeah, you’re most dressed like Frank. … Well, with the Rat Pack.

SETH: I don’t think I’m up to that.

WARE: What does that make me, then?

BURNS: No, I guess I’m Deano. Nevermind. [Laughter.]

Next: Part Two.

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2 Responses to “Charles Burns, Chip Kidd, Seth and Chris Ware Panel (Part One of Three)”

  1. […] Creators | The Comics Journal posts the first part of a 2005 panel discussion at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto featuring Charles Burns, Chip Kidd, Seth and Chris Ware. [] […]

  2. […] The Comics Journal shares a 2005 panel discussion between cartoonists Charles Burns, Seth, Chris Ware, and designer/author Chip Kidd. […]