Sean Michael Robinson: The Craft Behind Cerebus: An Interview with Gerhard (Part One of Three)

Posted by on February 14th, 2011 at 2:00 PM

Sean Michael Robinson: “ Gerhard at his drawing board, the same one he’s been using for 30 years.”

He’s soft spoken, self-effacing. Thoughtful. He worked on almost 5,000 pages over 20 years, but in the past seven years has struggled to draw at all. His former partner is one of the most well-documented figures working in comics, and yet he himself has given only a handful of interviews.

For 20 years, Canadian artist Gerhard worked as a background artist and environmental designer on Cerebus, one of the most sprawling pieces of visual fiction ever created. His designs and meticulously crafted drawings served to ground even the most fantastic of events, or drastic of stylistic shifts. Sim and Gerhard worked in a way that to many may seem unimaginable — Sim penciling and inking his characters in vast fields of white, and handing them off to his collaborator sometimes with the barest of instructions. A pencil line for a table, a hastily written note reading “door.” And yet the resulting work almost always seem unified, of a piece. It’s a remarkable tribute to Gerhard that no matter what was happening in the foreground of the books, the characters always seemed grounded in a reality, capable of exploring and interacting with their richly textured world.

Gerhard and I spoke to each other over the course of a few hours on Boxing Day, December 26th, 2010. On each end of our respective phone lines we both had an intimidating stack of books — the almost five thousand pages that Sim and Gerhard created together over the course of those 20 years. We flipped through the books chronologically, with the idea of discussing the evolution of Gerhard’s process and techniques, focusing on his development as an artist and a craftsman. I find that when cartoonists get together to talk, they almost inevitably end up circling around issues of craft, grilling each other on the “how to” and the “what for.” I consider Gerhard a master draftsman, and one of the greatest pen and ink renderers of the last 50 years, and so I thought that such a conversation with him would be compelling for pen and ink enthusiasts, for Cerebus admirers, or for or those curious about a job whose quality depends on its invisibility. He did not disappoint.

For those of you who are hoping for a juicy expose on Gerhard and Sim’s working relationship, or the dissolution of their partnership, I’m afraid you might be disappointed. I hope you stick around anyway, though, and enjoy — there’s a lot to take in.

— Sean Michael Robinson

Robinson: Do you remember much about your formative art experiences? Were they in a classroom, with your parents, or …?

Gerhard: My mother’s told me I was the easiest kid to keep occupied. If she was busy with housework, all she had to do was give me a piece of paper and a pencil or some crayons and I was quiet for hours. Drawing is just something that I’ve always liked to do. In school I would doodle more often than I would take notes.

In high school, I had three notebooks. One was for math and science, and one was for English and geography and those were empty and pristine. And the third notebook was just jam-packed with blank paper, and I would just doodle in it constantly. And when I filled up that notebook I would take all the pages out and usually just throw them away and fill it up again with blank paper, and off I’d go.

I remember one particular time in math class the teacher had given us these assignments to work on. He wasn’t teaching — everyone was working quietly on the math problem or whatever it was — and of course I’m sitting there lost in my own little world doodling stuff. And unnoticed by me, he was walking up and down the aisle seeing how everyone was doing. And he came up behind me and sort of reached over my shoulder and picked up this notebook with all my doodles in it. And I thought, “I’m screwed. I’m totally screwed.” This wasn’t intended for anyone but me, so there was anything and everything in there. So I thought, “This is it. I’m going down to the office. I’m dead, I’m dead.” And he closed the book, started at the beginning, and he flipped through it until he got to the page I was doodling on. Then he put it back down on my desk and continued walking up the aisle helping people with their math problems, and I thought, “Whew.” Because he could have really hung me up to dry.

I’ve been thinking about this — I thought you might ask me about my early influences. And I would love to quote all these great names, Bernie Wrightson and other brilliant artists. But I realized that one of my biggest early influences was my babysitter. I was maybe in grade three. And she was probably just late teens, just a girl, I have no idea what her name was. I had a paint-by-numbers coloring book, a Stingray coloring book, the TV show with the marionettes and the  submarine. But I only had the book — I didn’t have the paints, the colors. So she was trying to get me to sit down and draw. And I said, “I can’t because I don’t have the paints to put the colors in.”

She said, “OK, why don’t you try this?” She pointed out that the number one on the page was yellow, the lightest color. So she said “leave that one blank.” For the number two, the next darkest color, orange or whatever, she said, “Put in just one set of lines. [Laughing.] And then for three, the next darkest color, put in two sets of lines. And for the four, put in three sets of lines.” She basically taught me right then and there how to think in a grayscale. [Laughter.] Once I started doing that, I realized it actually worked and I was amazed. I remembered that just recently.”Oh my God, that’s really where I first learned to crosshatch and think in a grayscale!”

As far as any other art training goes, I never took any sort of extra classes or anything like that. Actually I was not a good student in high school. I majored in drugs, mostly.

Robinson: Which drugs in particular?

Gerhard: Oh, marijuana mostly. I actually had to take grade 10 art three times before I passed it.

Robinson: Oh my God.

high school doodle, 1975 or 1976

Gerhard: Mostly because the curriculum was divided — the first half of the year was drawing and painting, which I was fine with, and the second half of the year was ceramics and sculpture, which I didn’t care for at all. My one pottery thing that I built blew up in the kiln and wrecked everybody else’s stuff that was in there. I guess you could say I’m self-taught. For the longest time I had a lot of trouble talking about this kind of stuff. You know, influences and technique — because basically I was learning on the job. And I was embarrassed to look at the early stuff. As I’m sure Dave is to look at a Cerebus #1. He probably cringes every time. [Laughter.]

Robinson: When you say early stuff, which particular period are you referring to? How long would you consider that journeyman stage?

Gerhard: I don’t think there was ever one particular turning point. It was a very gradually evolving thing — I just slowly got better. Thank God. [Laughter.]

Sean Michael Robinson: “Strangely, Gerhard and a friend used this aardvark (adapted from the anteater in the BC comics) as a logo for years, well before they’d ever heard of Dave Sim or Cerebus.”

Robinson: In the first 300 pages you worked on in Church and State, it’s amazing the amount of techniques you’re adding through that time — and subtracting too.

Gerhard: Right, yeah. Get rid of what doesn’t work, keep what does work, and you slowly build up a bag of tricks. Like when something worked, you kept that. “OK, remember how you did that.” And when something didn’t work, it was like “Don’t do that again.”

Robinson: It’s interesting to me to look at the very first issue. You seemed to avoid contour lines a lot for the backgrounds and more focused on the value relationships, but you almost immediately ditched that.

Gerhard: That’s the problem with learning on the job — all these thousands of people get to see all of your mistakes. And luckily I managed to muddle through that. It was a learning process for both Dave and I. He has this incredible ability to mimic almost any drawing style. And when he got stuck, when he had a page where he’s thinking “How should this look? How should I present this? What is the effect I want here?” — all he had to do was to pull out a Bernie Wrightson book or Jeff Jones or whoever, and he could emulate that. He tried to get me to do the same sort of thing. And I would look at those references, but ultimately it would always work out best if I just drew the way that I drew. Not trying to fight it. I would try to make it look a little more like that, but I would still have to do it the way I do it. That was just the way it worked best. And it usually involved a whole lot of little lines. [Laughing.]

Robinson: Well, you certainly modified your inking style at times. Not to jump too far ahead, Going Home is very pattern focused, and Form and Void has the stark contrast.

Gerhard: And that was actually really difficult for me, because I really do think in a grayscale, in those tonal values. I realized at some point that it sort of defines the differences in the personalities of Dave and I: He’s very much a black-and-white kind of guy, even in his thinking, and I am more shades of gray. He was a master at spotting blacks. In High Society, before I started on the book, there was a lot of black. He was concentrating on the writing and the characters and there’d be a whole lot of black on the page, which was basically why he asked me to come on board and flesh out the world that Cerebus lives in.

Robinson: To take that up, how much back-reading of Cerebus did you do before you actually worked on the Epic stories, or the series? Did you actually sit down and read all of the issues?

Gerhard: At the time before I started on Cerebus, I was working at the local art supply store, which was appropriately named The Art Store. And I was doing some commercial jobs on the side, trying to make some money and trying to build up a portfolio of published, or at least printed, work. So a lot of it was commercial work. I would have to draw snow tires and meat pies. One assignment was to draw a frozen beef pie using pointillism and “make it look delicious.” [Laughter.]

Below: Two examples of Gerhard’s commercial work ca. 1982 or 1983

Robinson: Is that possible?

Gerhard: Well, I gave it my best shot. But this was the sort of thing that I was doing at the time. I was also working at the art supply store and doing the deliveries. And Dave was on my route. I would drop off the Letratone that made Cerebus gray. And that’s how I met Dave. Also Deni, his wife at the time, is a sister of a friend of mine. So we met at parties and stuff too. At the time I had done a whole bunch of pen-and-ink pieces and colored them with watercolor wash on top of the pen and ink, and framed all of those up to try to do a show, and that met with, let’s call it limited success? Because it takes a long time to put all those pieces together, costs a lot of money to frame them up and takes a long time to sell them and get your money back. So I had a whole bunch of unsold pieces hanging up in the apartment. I had a party and Dave and Deni came. I was aware he was doing a comic at the time, but I wasn’t into comics at all. I had seen an issue here or there, and thought, “That’s pretty cool,” but I hadn’t got into the story or anything. And then when Dave saw these colored pieces that I had done, he mentioned that Archie Goodwin at Epic had approached him about doing some color pieces, and Dave was never big into doing color. And so he asked if he laid out the pages and inked the characters and the word balloons, would I be able to do backgrounds like this behind it? So I said, “Let’s give it a shot.”  And that’s how the Epic pieces came about. Then when he asked me if I wanted to do the backgrounds on the monthly book, I sat down with issue 1 and read all the way up to the current one, and sort of dove in from there. I read the whole thing pretty much in one sitting.

Robinson: What was your impression at the time?

Gerhard: I remember going into the studio the next day after reading them and I just started gushing. Just “I love this part, I love that part, this is great, that’s great, when he does this, when he does that …” and Dave’s just sort of rolling his eyes like “Oh, God, he’s turned into a fawning fan.” What he wanted was a collaborator. “No, no, it’s OK. I’m just saying, I’m really blown away, I’m really excited about working on this stuff.”

And he was like, “Well, let’s get to work.” [Laughter.] And of course the first few pages were just brutal. Here I am — I figure basically all I’m doing is ruining Dave’s pages. [Laughter.]

Robinson: Did that feeling last a long time?

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9 Responses to “Sean Michael Robinson: The Craft Behind Cerebus: An Interview with Gerhard (Part One of Three)”

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