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. Iām honored to be able to introduce this panel: itās going to be very interesting. Iād like to remind you that the [PEN] petition is located in the bookstore, and if you havenāt signed it already it would be really good if you could sign it on your way out.
A few words about this afternoonās 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 thereās 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 thatās what Iām really excited about.
So now I guess Iād 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; itās available outside. Charles Burns. [Applause.]
And our next guest is Chris Ware. Heās 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, heās 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 Kiddās appearance at the festival, and also to Drawn & Quarterly for supporting Sethās appearance at the festival. Thanks.
JEET HEER: Thanks to Marc Ngui for the introduction. Marc is ā in addition to being many other things ā he is also a fine young cartoonist, himself. So, the way this is going to work is, Iām going to ask questions of each of the artists about their work, weāll have a hopefully free-flowing discussion, and then in the last half hour weāll 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 ā50s and ā60s, or, was born in the ā50s, 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 beingā¦ subā¦ Not subhuman, but, not something thatās 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 donāt 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 ā50s so Mad was still seen as subversiveā¦
BURNS: Yeah, and it actually was; if you look through some of those stories, there are several surprisingly grotesque and very odd, violent storiesā¦
HEER: Yeah, I know, thatās actually an interesting point, ācause when you say youāre influenced by Mad, I think one of the things people should bear in mind is itās not the Mad that they might have known. Youāre here with the original Harvey Kurtzman Madā¦ Kinda grotesque.
BURNS: Yeah, there were parodies, but there were alsoā¦ they werenāt funny. There was something, for me, anyway, when I was reading, there was nothingā¦ I didnāt understand the references, of course, but they certainly werenāt funny.
HEER: You were looking at some of these things before you were actually reading, and thatās interesting, how it is to be a child trying to decipher pictures. Youāre reading pictures before youāre reading words.
BURNS: Yeah, the other example I was showing in my talk was HergĆ©ās Tintin. Those stories are very linear and very clear, if you donāt know how to read you can still follow what Tintinās doing. Whereas with Harvey Kurtzmanās Mad, he was doing parodies of Mickey Mouse, the famous āMickey Rat,ā I think thatās what it was. But there were cultural references that I didnāt know, like [what] the Howdy Doody Show isāprobably a lot of people donāt know what that is eitherābut it was still very strong graphic images that really stuck with me, in a very strong atmosphere.
HEER: OK. Thereās one other person that wasnāt mentioned in the previous talk but was also a very, like HergĆ©, an artist thatās very clear, which is Chester Gould. Now, you grew up reading Chester Gouldās 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 ā30s, and he finally retired, Iām not sure exactly what year, but I think it was in the ā70s. And he wasā¦ I mean, every stage of the storyā¦ is interesting to me, even the veryā¦ Even when it starts getting very weird in the ā60s, where he goes off to the moon, where they have the Moon Maid, and it starts getting very science fiction-y. Itās still maintained its very idiosyncratic, strange world. Speaking of strange worldsā¦ [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 Stanleyās Little Lulu is in there quite a bit.
SETH: Yeah ā¦ 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 ā since I hadnāt really done an adventure story before ā I thought, āWell, what do I like in an adventure story?ā And I thought, āWell, the two things I like are Little Orphan Annie and Dick Tracy.ā So, the two parts of it are pretty clearlyā¦ Like, the first part is Chester Gould and then part two is ā¦ 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, likeā¦ 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 sheās doing, and she goes, āGosh itās good to be up this morning. Thereās some people who donāt like to mop a floor but I love moppināāā¦ [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 itāsā¦ 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 ā¦ 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 toā¦ I guess to reinforce his political viewpoint or something, always keeping it out in the front. But that was, likeā¦ So I took that basically as that central point there.
And then with Gould, what always struck me about his work isā¦ The characters are basically cardboard characters. Certainly, Dick Tracy, you feel nothing for him personally, but itās 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: Thatās true.
SETH: Because theyāre 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 Stanleyās 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 himselfā¦ Heās 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 heās full of self-congratulation, and he takes on these roles like where heās a detective or heās the spider, and heās just got a rich fantasy life and is very self-possessed, and I realized that without really planning it, a lot of John Stanleyās 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 wayā¦ the humorous setup in them, Iām 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 theyāre 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 characterās face asā¦
BURNS: Certainly. That was one of the cool strips that was out there, I remember like clipping my Crime Stoppersā Textbook in the Sunday Pages, thereād be this little notebook thing that would tell you how to, you know, how to be your own detective or how to avoid crimeā¦ anyway.
HEER: OK. And Chris, youāve been influenced by a bunch of different cartoonists but did you want to talk about Frank King, whose work youāre involved in republishing, in the form of Walt & Skeezix. Just so people know what weāre talking about, this is an example of Frank Kingās art. He did a comic strip called Gasoline Alley from 1919 until about some point in the mid-ā50s, and this is a sort of famous Gasoline Alley Sunday Page that he did in woodcut style.
WARE: I think thatās probably one of the greatest Sunday pages ever drawn. Actually this particular version of it kind of messes it up, ācause you need the white space around it to have it really have a kind of gravitas that it actually has, but ā¦ So, what do you want me to say? [Laughter.]
HEER: What is it about Frank Kingās 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. Itās like they hand it to you and they say āYou will have no friends, but you will have this book.ā [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 ā even though the drawing really wasnāt necessarily that much different from other strips in the book ā 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 heād found named Skeezix.
HEER: Lots of orphans here.
WARE: Yeah: lots of orphans. Hmm. I wonder what that means. Soā¦ Now you messed me up, I forgot what I was saying. [Laughter.]
HEER: Oh, probably, itāsā¦ Youāre talking about how the strip revolves around Walt Wallet and Skeezix: and, what are the distinguishing characteristics ā¦ and the aging in real timeā¦
WARE: Sorry, Iām like a hospital patient up hereā¦ [Laughter.] Well, I basically grew really to love the strip and I started collecting examples of it from collectors at comic-book conventions ā¦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 didnāt 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 heād 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 Iād been collecting like Gasoline Alley toys and collectibles ā 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 ā and I said to my wife, I said, āI think the reason I might like this strip is because itās about a kid and his dad,ā because Iād never actually met my dad: I was raised by my mom and my grandmother. And she said āUh, no duh.ā [Laughter.] So obviously sheād 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 itās almost unique among comic strips in being really about a father-and-son relationship, and very close. But isnāt there also a lot of aesthetic influence, in the fact that Frank King dealt with quiet moments, and he wasnāt into melodrama andā¦ 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 isnāt exactly like a very snappy, funny subject matter for a Sunday comic, but he did it every year. And the fact thatā¦ thatās my stuffā¦ [Laughter.]
Soā¦ 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 itās loosely based āI shouldnāt say loosely ā directly ripped off from [laughter] one of Frank Kingās 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 Kingās page and your page, I think some of the commonalities are also that youāre viewing the whole page as a unit.
WARE: Thatās 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 weāve both gone down to visit Drewanna King, who is Frank Kingās granddaughter, together, and spent a great deal of time with her in their basement, looking at old comics, which isā¦
HEER: It must have been delightful for her.
WARE: Yeah, Iām sure it was. [Laughter.] It doesnāt take much to excite Jeet and me, I think. Sitting in a basementā¦
HEER: Yeah, it was a bizarre experience because we went down also with our publisher Chris Oliveros, and I think the King family felt, āWho are these three strange, possibly homosexual men [laughter] invading our household?ā
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: thatās one thing thatās quite striking in Frank Kingās work, and in your work as well, thereās 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 donāt think a lot of his contemporaries necessarily were aiming for. I think they were probably aiming more for ā either, artistically, a snappy, joke-telling sort of thing, or just fame. But he was reallyā¦ He genuinely was trying to get at something, I think.
HEER: Thereās a famous saying: thatās āArtists invent their own ancestors.ā 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 itās possible that you, and also Seth and Charles, searched out ancestors that could nourish your own artistic impulses?
WARE: Yeah, I mean, itās kind of pathetic, actually, but I think itās true. [Laughter.] At least, in my own case, Iāve always sought out father figures in my life, and I had the luxury of picking and choosing them, and different aspects from different people ā¦ certainly the Frank King situation that was what I felt I did. But I think we all do that. ā¦ I shouldnāt say this again, I keep saying it everywhere, but drawing comics isnāt easy, itās a lonely endeavor, and you constantly are asking yourself āWhy am I doing this, why am I doing this?ā So itās 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: Yeahā¦ Letās bring Chip into this as well, because heās already been making many facial gestures, I feel heās already part of the conversation, butā¦
CHIP KIDD: The really funny thing is you guys actually are straight, and just the idea of you going down there, andā¦[Laughter.]
HEER: Thatās right, thatās rightā¦ a very bizarre trip. ā¦ I actually feel itās a great thing that Chip was in [town] this weekend and is able to join us, because even though in some ways he isnāt a cartoonist directly, he is actually, becauseā¦ Heās widely considered to be the best book designer in the world, and a book designer that any author would [laughs] ā¦ heās probably widely considered, except by himself. [Laughter.]
KIDD: I always feel like the Peter Lawford to their Rat Pack. [Laughter.] Iām included by default. But itās a great honor, thank you.
HEER: Well, you have a book out as well ā¦ not just a coffee table book, itās 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 youāre very similar to a lot of cartoonists, in the sense that youāre 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 Chipās hands.
KIDD: Actual size. [Laughter.]
HEER: Actual size. But in many of the books that youāve designed, thereās images from your family life, or your furniture, or [laughs]ā¦ So itās a weird thing, but youāve 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 itās 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.] Andā¦ But thatās for another time.
Actually, as a kid, obviously I loved the funnies, but it was those serial things, and I couldnāt be bothered with Dick Tracy, because I couldnāt keep track in my head what was happening from week to week, but then my mother bought meā¦ There was this giant big compendium of the strip, from the beginning up to the ’50s or whatever, and it didnāt even have any type on the front. It just had Dick Tracyās 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, weāre waiting for Sethās 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 āĀ which was not meaning that Dick Tracy was evil butā¦ Heās police and they have shootouts, and the villains died! And I was a big Batman fan, where the Joker didnāt die, he fell into Gotham Bay and they couldnāt find the body, and heĀ would just emerge ā surprise! ā six months later, in something else. So there was that sense of finality about it that seemed to meā¦ like there was a lot more at stake in Dick Tracy. And that was, dramatically, veryā¦ It had a big impact on me as a kid.
HEER: OK. [Laughter.]
KIDD: Isnāt that fascinating. [Laughter.]
HEER: But, aside from Dick Tracy, you obviously are very drawn to superheroes, and youāve done many books where youāve almost reinvented ā¦ our sense of the superhero body, repackaging Plastic Man and Batman, andā¦ 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, andā¦ 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 havenāt grown up yet. But, one question Iāve gotten through the years is, āHow have comics ā¦ informed your design work?ā And this is like Chris, with not being able to see that the reason, one of the reasons he likes Gasoline Alley is thisā¦ Itās the father that heās never had, in a wayābut I just didnāt 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 āI donāt see any correlation.ā
And he said, āWell, youāre very careful about separating the type from the images in a lot of your work.ā
I said, āYeah, 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 donāt cross the boundaries.ā
And he said, āYeah, well, thatās like comics. Youāve got your person talking, and their words come out of their mouth, and theyāre very neatly contained in a balloon, and the caption, if there is one, is neatly contained above the image.ā
Iām likeā¦ āFuck!ā [Laughter.]
HEER: Well, thatās what I meant to say is that you, you fit on this panel. [Laughter.] Youāre not Peter Lawford.
KIDD: Peter Lawford had to work damn hard! [Laughter.]
HEER: Which one of you is Frank Sinatra? [Laughter.]
BURNS: Iām Sammy. [Laughter.]
KIDD: Yeah, but heās Frank.
HEER: Yeah, youāre most dressed like Frank. ā¦ Well, with the Rat Pack.
SETH: I donāt think Iām up to that.
WARE: What does that make me, then?
BURNS: No, I guess Iām Deano. Nevermind. [Laughter.]
Next: Part Two.
Tags: Acme Novelty Library, Charles Burns, Chester Gould, Chip Kidd, Chris Ware, Dick Tracy, Frank King, Gasoline Alley, Harold Gray, Little Lulu, Little Orphan Annie, Rusty Brown, Seth, Smithsonian Book of Newspaper Comics, Tubby, Walt & Skeezix