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

Posted by on April 1st, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Previously: Part One.

HEER: Charles, is there anything that these guys have said about Batman or any of the other characters that would resonate with you…?

BURNS: I think all of us, again, had their personal favorites growing up. For some reason, comics… I don’t know why I was attracted to them more than other kids around me, but… There’s the few pieces that you look at very early on that seem to just be very, very important. Again, it could be I was just lucky, maybe: that I had some good examples to look at early on.

WARE: Did you even read Superman comics…?

BURNS: Oh yeah, absolutely. I searched out any comics I could find because I just liked comics. I’d move around … trying to find some store that even sold them. So, yeah, I went through the whole superhero stage. And right around the time that I grew disinterested in superheroes — getting into junior high school, I was starting to be interested in sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll — some kid at school said “Have you seen these Zap Comix? Burns, you’re gonna like these!”

So, and of course I did. “What are they doing… in this comic? How does that… how do people…”

So… Luckily there was that kind of shift where there was something interesting out there.

I mentioned that my father liked comics, and he would refer to comics that he liked, like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, and eventually those collections came out. But… there were some books that would be like the history of comics, and you’d see a lone, little tiny strip of Buck Rogers, for example. And it was almost like looking at the toe bone of a dinosaur. You’d build this entire imaginary beast out of this one little fragment. And so, ultimately what happened, for example, with Buck Rogers, suddenly having this big book, you’d realize “This isn’t a very interesting strip.” But I still… For me, when I was a little kid doing my sketchbooks, and drawing from this little tiny strip, it was… It fed my imagination.

HEER: Sure, you just needed a small sample to create your own…

BURNS: Yeah.

SETH: But comics are like that in general, to a degree. Because you’d come on board of something that already existed, you’d start reading a strip that’d been around for 20 years, or a comic book that had been around for 20 years, but you had no access to the previous material. You couldn’t go down to the library and get the back issues of Spider-Man. So you just had to get on board. But there was always this sense of all this great material that you hadn’t read, even though you later found out it wasn’t true. [Laughter.] That really fired your imagination, to imagine that the material was great, like Charles was saying.

And you were talking about how you read all the different types of comics. I did that too, I think every cartoonist did. But I think the superheroes — it’s funny, I’ve seen them referred to as the crack cocaine of comic books before, and it’s very true that once I got into superheroes, it redefined what I thought of as comics. Suddenly, Mad magazine and Peanuts, I didn’t think of them as comics in the same way. Comics were those superhero comic books that I was reading. I became very obsessively involved with those, and the other stuff was just other material of some sort. Even as a teenager, like when I would read Heavy Metal or something, I didn’t think I was reading a comic book. It was something else.

It was only later, when I finally lost interest in the superhero comics, did that continuum of cartooning come clear to me again, and I started to pick and choose from all that material I’d read — like where you were saying, where you pick your antecedents —where I started to realize what had the lasting value for me. I suddenly said, “You know, I’ve been reading Peanuts since I was a kid, and Peanuts is the thing that still means something to me,” even though I didn’t give it much thought when I was spending all those years fetishizing over Spider-Man’s costume. [Laughter.]

And there’s something else that I think about comics, generally, for cartoonists … lots of kids read comics and lots of kids drew, but a lot of them, they dropped away, they stopped reading them or they stopped drawing. And I don’t think it was because of a desire to draw comics, it has something to do with having an interior landscape of imagination that you become more concerned with. And the typical cartoonist story, the lonely teen who has no friends, it’s a cliché because it’s pretty true, and that’s why you draw these comics, because it gives you an opportunity to enter into the imaginary world. It’s no fun to sit around and just daydream, but by drawing them you have an active entry point into your imagination world, and when you have nothing else to do except watch TV, it gets more and more detailed and eventually you find that you’ve spent you know 10 years drawing these things…

HEER: And you’re stuck. [Laughter.] There’s no escape.

WARE: I was just gonna say that I grew up reading Peanuts, too, and I’ve said it before, but it’s the only thing that I could say that… I guess if I was Christian or something I could say I’d been reading the Bible since I was a little kid, but I haven’t been. Peanuts is the only thing I’ve been reading ever since I was a little kid and I still read now and I enjoy without any trace of irony whatsoever. It’s actually good. It’s really, actually, truly an amazing accomplishment that he created something that was accessible to all age groups. It’s not just for children.

I grew up reading it because my grandfather was a newspaper editor. [I] couldn’t just go to the library, but actually I had a library in my grandparents’ basement, of all the Peanuts paperbacks, because he was one of the first managing editors in the United States to add the strip to a paper’s roster, so he got all the new paperbacks and they were all lined up in his library and I used to go down and read ’em. I loved reading ’em. It gave me this really warm feeling and I really cared about all the characters a lot.

KIDD: I have to say, in putting this book together [Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz], one thing that I figured out which I sort of knew but didn’t really acknowledge, is that Schulz is the great uniter amongst almost all cartoonists. … He’s the one cartoonist that Dan Clowes and my mother can agree on, which is really, really amazing. You can be the most hipster little kid with a zillion piercings and you’re still into Charlie Brown’s angst.

WARE: Except I’m getting kinda worried, because I met somebody recently who said that he really loved Calvin and Hobbes. It was a young 20-year-old cartoonist. I said “Oh, do you like Peanuts?”

And he said, “Naw, I haven’t read Peanuts.”

I thought “What? How could you not have read Peanuts? It’s in the air.”

And he said. “Yeah, I heard it was OK. I don’t know. I might read it.” [Laughter.]

HEER: Did you set him straight?

WARE: I said “Well, you should really try and read it…”

BURNS: Insist.

WARE: I think in a way I would like to be somebody who had never read Peanuts, because Peanuts is really a weird strip, and to be able to see it with fresh… I mean, we almost can’t see Peanuts anymore, it’s such a part of our internal mental template that we project out onto the world, and we see Snoopy, it’s like… We don’t even think…

KIDD: the other thing that’s so weird is that the licensing is heading in one emotional direction, which is basically “Aahh!” Whereas the strip itself is like “ohhh.” … It’s an amazing dichotomy.

HEER: That actually brings up the two books you did, ’cause Chip did a book on the art of Charles Schulz and Seth, as we mentioned, is designing The Complete Peanuts. I think part of what you guys are trying to do is to reformat Peanuts in a way that we can look at it with fresh eyes. Isn’t that part of the intent of your books, to give it a new perspective?

KIDD: I think so… what Seth is doing is far more ambitious than what I did. [Laughter.] It’s almost like a scrapbook, or let’s preserve as much of this stuff while we can, when we can. I can’t really explain it. But he’s really… This will be the legacy of the…

SETH: That’s very kind of you, Chip.

KIDD: Well, it’s true.

HEER: Well, Seth, do you want to say some stuff about your thinking behind the design, or what you want people to get out of Schulz’s work?

SETH: A lot of people ask me if it was difficult to do the book, but the truth is it wasn’t that difficult, because I’d so internalized Peanuts in my life that when the time came to sit down and design it, it was pretty clear what I wanted to do. I didn’t go through a lot of rough ideas or anything. I knew that I just wanted to package the work with some dignity, basically, because I felt that the merchandising over the years had changed our opinion of what Peanuts was, that the colors were always bright, it was always geared towards children, at least since the mid-’70s, and with all the TV shows and everything… The characters have become so ubiquitous, like Chris has said, that you don’t really see them at all any more.

So I just wanted to take down the colors, and to have a sedate package that goes around the work, so that you’re just led into the work very gently across a couple of landscapes, across the grass that always leads you to the Peanuts characters. And then just have the work speak for itself again. Because I think the work is so strong that if you come to it again and just see it freshly, it’s hard not to be… It’s hard not to appreciate the work. I think it works on so many different levels. But I’m not expecting everyone to have the same kind of response to it that I would, but I feel that if it’s just presented honestly, with an austere quality to it, then people will see that work and give it a chance again, to overlook all that media saturation.

WARE: I agree. I really love the way you’ve designed those books. It’s really beautiful.

SETH: Thank you, Chris.

WARE: I actually have a pedestal in my living room where all four of ’em sit. [Laughter.]

HEER: Now, hasn’t there been a reevaluation of all these old comic strips in the last 10 or 15 years? You were saying that at one point you were really into superheroes, and then, you started to decide what’s important, and it seems like there’s shifting — to use an academic word — canon, or pantheon — to use a Random House word [Laughter]. The pantheon of great cartoonists is changing. What are some of the reevaluations that are going on?

SETH: I think it’s changing because the initial groups back in the ’60s and ’70s — when a few books came out where they decided to represent comic strips as art, or as pop culture, or whatever — the group of people, I think, who chose the strips had a different sensibility than the people of today. It was very much based on a kind of ’30s nostalgia, so you had a lot of Flash Gordon, a lot of Buck Rogers, and it’s tied into…

HEER: Adventure strips.

WARE: [Always] that nostalgia…

SETH: And a rebirth of radio shows, and silent movies and… these guys were nostalgists and they were collectors. And I think that the adventure strip has paled as time has gone by. There are a few examples of people who did high caliber work in it, but the work that’s being reevaluated now is the stuff that’s stood the test of time a little better, that’s more human, that’s easier… things like Gasoline Alley or Peanuts or Krazy Kat are all perfect examples of strips that have a timeless quality of just the human experience. They’re not adventure stories. I mean, Flash Gordon’s a charming adventure story, and it’s very nice and kitschy and everything, but it doesn’t really speak to you in any way beyond that.

HEER: Chris, you were going to say something.

WARE: I was basically going to say that.

HEER: OK. But you brought up the point of nostalgia, and that’s a commonality with all of you, and Charles had said he was looking at comics before he could read, and that his whole body of work has been passing through, from Big Baby to “Teen Plague” to punk rock, so how much of doing comics is just the central fact that we read them when we’re young …

BURNS: I think it’s… It’s not so much about nostalgia for me, anyway. For me, other than just the idea of… There’s a certain kind of imagery or a certain kind of feeling or mood that I internalized when I was young, and I think that when I’m writing a story or trying to write comics, I’m trying to capture that focus and that mood. But not nostalgia for “I wish I was 5 years old again.”

HEER: Yeah, it’s difficult to read Black Hole and think, “Boy, I wish I was a teenager again.” [Laughter.]

But even in Black Hole … Well, first of all there’s a lot of sympathy for the characters, and secondly there is an appreciation for that mid-’70s world which you capture really well, all that kitschy…

BURNS: Well, I could have conceivably written a story taking place in the ’90s, but since that was the time period that I grew up in, I could speak with authority about what kind of rolling papers you should use, and what’s the best, I don’t know, 16 oz. cheap beer that you should buy. That’s a research that…

KIDD: Yeah, so, what is it?

BURNS: Olympia Beer appears throughout my comics. … What’s nice about being able to use the Internet is I could do research: I could get the perfect Olympia can from 1973. I guess I don’t have to do that, but for me [it seemed] important just to capture that time period.

WARE: I would actually like to say I am a full-fledged nostalgist. I would love to be 5 years old again, actually. That would be great. I would love to just be able to sit in my room and draw and not have to worry about anything other than getting down to lunch on time, and not getting beat up in school or something. [Laughter.]

HEER: Well, isn’t there a common desire to return to that energy and excitement of youth, when things are very powerful, and so you could look at a Dick Tracy or a Peanuts comic strip and have a big impression: Isn’t that a lot of the impulse behind all this?

WARE: I hope not. But it probably is to a certain degree. Schulz again is a pretty good example of somebody who…

I was just talking to Seth about this at lunch—I seem to have this problem where I feel like every part of my life, where I’ve changed or I feel like I’ve changed, the direction that my life could have gone before — I feel like I could return back to it any time and pick up those threads and start again, which is completely insane. There’s no way to justify that whatsoever. So, I end up just fixating on parts of my life that maybe I shouldn’t, and I think Schulz keeping his yearbooks and writing down, notating off to the side of photographs of people who died from his senior year, showed a certain sort of fixation as well, maybe, on his youth, a little bit … We all know that he asked out the little red-haired girl, himself, we all know that Charles Schulz was rebuffed asking a woman out on a date, which is really weird that we all know that! It’s a really personal story but he told it …

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: He asked her to marry him.

WARE: Yeah, that’s right, that’s true. See, she knows it even better than the cartoonist does here. [Laughter.]

WOMAN: But she married somebody else, I thought.

WARE: That’s right. … You could come up here… [Laughter.] I get really nervous when I’m up here and I start mixing things up, but you’re absolutely… It’s just strange that we all know that and that he told that story… very public.

HEER: It’s a very private fact that’s public knowledge.

WARE: Which is interesting. It became a part of his…

HEER: Legend.

WARE: Thank you. I’m gonna stop… talking. [Laughter.]

HEER: But I think, Chris, you’re talking about being a nostalgist and wanting to return to when you were 5, but in your own work, isn’t there also a sense that people who are collectors… often seem very terrible. You’re often making fun of collectors and the collecting impulse. Certainly in the Rusty Brown strips…

WARE: Well, I’m making fun of me, because I’m a collector, I guess. I’m not trying to make fun of toy collectors, per se, but just myself in terms of my own obsession with trying to recreate little parts of my childhood, or something, but… I mean it’s like a way I could have gone, I guess, too…

HEER: But… It seems like, in your work, there’s a complicated feeling towards the past, both a longing, and also you see it as problematic.

WARE: Like I said before… I feel like I want to go back there and fix things somehow and I feel like that’s what I do with comics. There’s something about seeing it and being able to draw certain memories of mine on a page that somehow makes them a little more concrete or something. I don’t know. It’s probably not something I probably should try to articulate… publicly. [Laughter.]

HEER: You associate drawing comics with memory…

WARE: feel like I’m on a… psychiatrist… [Laughter.]

HEER: Sorry…

WARE: It’s OK.

HEER: Your 50 minutes is almost up, Chris. But you often talk about drawing comics as a memory activity.

WARE: When you’re drawing, you’re looking at what you’re drawing, and there’s something about looking when you’re writing at drawings that you’re making, that pulls you back into your mind and allows certain memories that maybe you necessarily wouldn’t have even, hydrated or reactivated or something, to come up again. And then that affects, at least in my own stuff, the direction that the story will take. Which is not a way of writing that I would recommend, necessarily.

HEER: Now, Seth, you also talk about drawing occasionally as a memory activity… it’s not like you’re looking at something, you’re drawing it, but the act of drawing comes from memory.

SETH: My experience as an artist is a very solitary experience, since I’m at home in my studio by myself all the time. And drawing involves some part of your brain that doesn’t require as much conscious thought it seems as writing, for example. You go to write, you sit down, you have to write, turn off the music, you can’t have any focus on anything, but when I’m drawing it’s like that part of my brain that’s drawing is occupied, but the other part of my brain is free to flow around the room all at once, and so you spend hours and hours and hours of every day in a reverie, going over things. And I think that that… is kind of unhealthy, as Chris says…

BURNS: That sounds really fun, actually… When I’m drawing it’s never like that. I wish I was…

SETH: No? I’m thinking about my childhood and my teen years pretty obsessively in the last few years.

BURNS: Sounds fun. [Laughter.]

SETH: I’m painted as a guy who’s obsessed with the ’20s and ’30s, but truthfully I don’t sit in my room and think about the ’20s very much.

WARE: You’re thinking about the ’70s.

SETH: I sit and think about the 1970s over and over and over again. [Laughter.] And I think part of it, too, is that I’ve romanticized that image of myself as a child and a teenager, and that isolation that I felt then that allowed me to escape into a fantasy world, and I’m constantly trying to recreate a bubble that’s like that. And it’s not very successful usually. I’ll sit in a room and I’ll try and get myself into the right frame of mind to enter into that otherworldly experience of losing myself in the drawing, and it only happens once in a blue moon.

And you try to find triggers for it: you try to find the right music that you might like to… Actually, online I found this two-minute clip of the end of this Detroit TV Great Movies segment, where it goes, “Thank you for watching Great Movies,” and the music comes on and there’s a little station break, and the first time I heard that I practically broke down and cried. It had such a potent emotional effect on me, to bring back that experience to life again. And I just think that that experience of trying to recapture that feeling has so much to do with why I’m doing the work.

The work itself is rarely ever about that. The work has more calculated reasons. But there’s something… I think it’s the same reason why I’m drawn to a certain kind of outsider artist like Henry Darger or people like that, because I romanticize the idea of that purity-of-the-alone experience with the work. There’s something about cartooning, I think, that just naturally lends itself to that. It’s a sad experience, cartooning. [Laughter.]

HEER: On that upbeat note… [Laughter.] Actually, to go tie that in with perhaps something you said earlier, isn’t a lot of your work about creating a coherent world, that is that bubble. So Wimbledon Green is very much a universe… this fantasy collector’s universe.

SETH: I’m very aware that I tend to deal with isolated characters who are within specific environments, because I’m going to try and branch out from that, actually, and do some more characters, people who aren’t just talking to themselves all the time. But there is something about that that’s a very potent image to me, and that World Building is… one of the main reasons why I was drawn to cartooning is that ability to create a fully realized world in your head and then try and get it onto paper, which is really difficult.

WARE: Well, a comic page in and of itself, actually, provides that experience simply by looking into those little boxes with little people moving around… It’s a dollhouse effect or something. There’s something about it that’s immediately, “Oh, you wanna look and see if…” You know, there’s a containment to it. That’s one of the reasons I like it. We can just end on a completely boneheaded note. Sorry.

HEER: No, no, no.

WARE: There’s a reason why I shouldn’t talk about this stuff.

HEER: Actually, there’s just one other thing I was going to ask you about, Chris. George Herriman: because you’re also involved with reprinting Krazy Kat. You wanna talk about …

WARE: I probably shouldn’t.

HEER: … some of the things that draw you to his work?

WARE: That’s a broad question. I should have asked you what you were going to ask about. Well, basically I’m designing the reissues of Krazy Kat, which is George Herriman’s masterpiece comic strip, for Fantagraphics Books, not unlike what Seth is doing for Fantagraphics. And, this basically was just an opportunity for me to not only read over his stuff again, but also to try to represent it in a more dignified way, or something like that.

I can’t specifically articulate what it is about Krazy Kat, other than it’s the greatest strip ever drawn. Overall, along with Peanuts, it’s the most inspiring to me of all comics, because it’s like poetry on paper, and it really lives on the page in a way that most comics don’t. So, it feels so much like a part of Herriman’s mind and soul that there’s never been a comic strip like it, I don’t think. Sometimes I think maybe younger cartoonists look at it and think that if they just don’t edit themselves, or just allow themselves to go into a flight of poetry, they’ll find that part of themselves, but it doesn’t work out so well. There’s something about it where it’s connected to the language of vaudeville or something… It’s difficult to articulate for me, which is why a lot of great writers and stuff haven’t even agreed what it’s about. … You wrote a really good article about it, you should say what you like about it.

HEER: Well, I mean…

WARE: You don’t want to. OK.

HEER: I’m the moderator. I ask the questions. [Laughter.]

WARE: Oh, OK.

HEER: No answers from me.

Obviously the poetry… And it’s a very personal work, in a way: I think that’s the commonality of all the comic strips that we’re talking about. Even Dick Tracy, which some people see as very commercial, there’s a very grim vision of the world that seeps through Chester Gould’s drawings. You’re either saved or you’re damned. You’re either Dick Tracy or you’re one of the criminals. The cartoonists that you’re all drawn to are the ones that their personalities really seep into their work. So that’s what I would say…

Seth, [what] do you want to say about people who shouldn’t be reprinted? [Laughter.]

SETH: I think there were more than 10,000 comic strips that have appeared in newspapers, and I would say probably at least 9,990 of them probably shouldn’t be reprinted.

HEER: You’re not going to design The Complete Cathy, or…? [Laughter.]

SETH: No.

KIDD: Oooh!

SETH: I think there are certain strips that you might be able to garner one volume out of it…

WARE: You critics are so mean.

HEER: No, that’s a good point. With something like The Complete Peanuts, it’s 25 volumes, and it’s all his work, but obviously not everyone did a of body of work where you want everything.

SETH: And most cartoonists came from a very clearly commercial area. It’s only the rare one that produced anything that has any lasting value. A lot of them are interesting craft-wise. You can look back and say Dennis The Menace is pleasing to look at for a few years, but you don’t want 22 volumes of Dennis The Menace. These things just have a formula that becomes tiresome after a while. And I think the majority of strips were in that category.

WARE: The weird thing, though, is that Krazy Kat is built on a formula. It’s the simplest formula in the world. But it worked. That was the amazing thing about it.

SETH: I think if you take a genius and apply him to anything, it’s gonna be good. So, anytime somebody says “Could this work in this form?” the answer is always “If the right person does it.”

And the strips, there are a lot of very talented cartoonists, a lot of guys I really learned stuff from, but you find out when you try to read 20 volumes of Washtubs, that you get… At Vo1.12, it’s like “I’m just gonna put this down for awhile.” And then, it’s 10 years later, and you’re thinking, “You know, I never did read those.” And it’s not that they were bad work, it’s just that they were of the times, and maybe it worked differently if you were reading it every day, much like a radio serial or something like that. I mean, it’s the same with most television, for example. You can be pretty actively interested in a TV show and then think, “Maybe I’ll buy the DVD of this” and then never watch it again in your life, or attempt to watch it and realize… Unless you’ve invested some emotion into something, most serialized stuff doesn’t have a lasting value beyond nostalgia. It’s the nostalgia that makes Buck Rogers a great strip if you read it when you were 10. But it doesn’t work if you didn’t read it when you were 10.

KIDD: I was zoning out, I’m sorry.

HEER: I thought we were going to get a passionate defense of Buck Rogers, and what he meant to you when you were 12.

KIDD: I didn’t really do the Buck Rogers thing, although, Buster Crabbe, man… [Laughter.]

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