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

Gerhard: Let’s see here. We’re in Church and State 1. Here we go. Looking back on this stuff is just …

Robinson: I’m sorry to do this to you.

Gerhard: Well, I knew it was going to happen. [Laughter.] No, especially the first few issues …. the thing too is Dave was using a crow-quill pen [Long sigh.] I’d been using mostly technical pens. So not only was I trying to learn technique and whatnot, I was using a completely new medium… oh, God, I can’t look at this, that’s just awful. [Much laughter.]

Robinson: What page?

Gerhard: Church and State page 282. Booba’s at the desk writing and there’s all these horrible bricks in the background. [Laughter.] But again, I was learning on the job. I remember saying to Dave at this point, “I’m drawing individual bricks. What I have to draw is a wall.” Learn how to draw a wall instead of a bunch of bricks.

Robinson: That’s a great way to say that. I was noticing on … 233 was the first monthly page you were on, right?

Gerhard: Let’s see … [hums] Yes.

Robinson: There’s some techniques in those first few pages that you don’t really come back to. Is that stippling on 275?

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Gerhard: What happened there was I inked it as a contour and though it was too distracting, too stark, so what I ended up doing was putting a sheet of white Letratone on that breaks up the black line. The other stuff on the page is a sheet of stipple Letratone. I wanted a gray value in there, but I didn’t have the confidence, especially with a new pen, to do it with crosshatching, so I did it with the stipple tone instead.

Robinson: Had you used much of that before?

Gerhard: Not to that extent. I was familiar with it. Now that I’m flipping through the pages, I see that I abandoned it pretty quickly. It’s not like I used it on very many pages directly after that.

Robinson: And when you did bring it back it was on top of some of your crosshatching.

Gerhard: That’s the thing. Sometimes I would put all the layers of crosshatching down and decide there wasn’t enough contrast, so, rather than trying to add another layer of crosshatching, I would just put the stipple tone on top.

Robinson: 277 is one of those pages I was noticing trouble with the line weight. Making the chair appear like it was really attached to her hand or not.

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Gerhard: Oh yeah. That’s actually a very good point. OK, we’re very early on here. We’re — What? — four or five pages into this. In the Epic stories, all the background stuff was very much in the background, and, other than the bottle he was drinking from, there wasn’t anything that the characters were directly interacting with. So when she picks up that chair all the sudden it still looks like it’s too much of a background chair, it’s not enough of a foreground chair. So I did my best at the time. But even looking at it then I’m going,“That’s not right. I have to do it differently than that. Not sure how yet, but differently.” So there was a distinction. A few pages later on Cerebus is in the courtyard playing cards, and the chair he’s sitting on there looks more like a foreground chair, not a background chair.

So I had to learn that distinction. The stuff that the characters are directly interacting with needs to be more cartoony, more contour line, and as things go further in the background, I could break up the contour line, use more value, or whatever.

Robinson: When you came back to those locations, sometimes a couple of hundred pages later, did you feel kind of stuck with the design that you had instigated?

Gerhard: In a lot of ways, yeah. That was one thing that I was probably overly concerned with, was trying to keep things looking consistent. At the same time I didn’t want to go back and make this thing exactly the same as before. I knew this was all one big long continuing story, and I knew it was going to be looked at in that way, especially when it would be reprinted in the phone books. I didn’t want any jarring stylistic change from one issue to the next, one page to the next. It was a bit of a struggle to not repeat the same mistakes I made before. It was a balancing act — make it look like it did before, but better.

Robinson: When we hit 305, is this some type of splatter on top of a Letratone?

Gerhard: Nope, again it’s the stipple tone. I would use two layers of it. The lighter gray is one layer, and I would put another layer of the stipple tone on top of it. If you look at the original pages it looks really good. If you look at this page reduced and printed on newsprint, it’s like “Ugh, that looks muddy. Don’t do that again!” That was the other thing learning to draw for reproduction. Most of the stuff I had done up till then was for framing, not reduced and reproduced. I would do the pages and I wouldn’t actually see how it turned out until the printed book came in. And I would look at it and go “Oh, that didn’t work; that did. Do that again; don’t do that again!” These issues were pretty much done without the knowledge of what it was going to look like in the final book.

Robinson: One small thing. On 328, there’s a crowd scene.

Gerhard: Hold on, let me find it. I think I know which one you’re talking about- it’s going to make me cringe again. [Pause.] oh yeah. We did a lot of stuff with photocopying. I would draw it on a separate piece of paper and photocopy it, and paste it on the page.  This was a long time ago. I think I drew a small section of the crowd, just the faces as ovals, because I didn’t want them all to look the same. So I had a little segment of faces and then photocopied them and pasted them up, and then just went in and put in different hair and stuff, tried to make each one a little different.

Robinson: How much adjustment do you think Dave was doing at this point knowing what you were going to be coming up with?

Gerhard: Well, when he was working, he was starting on a blank piece of paper. I think initially anyway his drawing style didn’t change too much. Did you notice on 331 the top right panel there’s no turn on Cerebus’ arm? [Laughter.] That was my job too — I took over the toning responsibilities, and I just completely forgot to tone his arm on that one. Anyway, this was sort of our philosophy too.  No matter how good the original art looks, whatever it looks like printed is the important thing, because that’s what everybody’s going to see. Not the original art. So if it worked on the original art and it didn’t work in print, then I had to change that. It was a learning curve for the both of us as we got the printed book back. We both sort of adjusted our styles and techniques down until we sort of met in the middle and finally gelled and it looked like one cohesive … I wonder when that started happening.

Robinson: In my estimation, around 466, 500, somewhere around there, it really starts to gel.

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Gerhard: Even this one, 444, where Cerebus goes down in the basement and he gets the case of whisky. I like that. That bottom panel. That’s very reminiscent of the Epic stories too. Yeah, more like that.

Robinson: There’s a kind of coordination that seems to be at work there.

Gerhard: Yeah. 449’s not too bad.

Lost it for a little bit there. And then … Oh yeah, the room with Jaka. I think that’s when it really started. I was still doing too much grain on the door — that’s too much. The stipple stuff worked out well. And I started putting down the stipple and then having just a little bit of crosshatching in the corner to give it some weight. That would come back from the printer and I would go, “Ohh, OK, that works. That’s one.”

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Robinson: It’s an unusual combination. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before: stipple tone on top of crosshatching.

Gerhard: In some cases I would do it the other way around — I would put the stipple tone down, say, “That’s too flat,” then I would crosshatch on top of the tone. On the job training. And one of Dave’s philosophies, which I really credit him for, was to do stuff just because it occurred to you. I remember where the little farmer guy comes in and there’s one panel where he’s looking out the window — there it is — 573 — and as I was penciling it I said to Dave, “Oh shit. All of a sudden it occurs to me that I want to do the reflection of the sun coming up in the window.”

And he said, “How are you going to do that?”

I said, “I dunno.”

He said, “Do you think you’re gonna be able to pull it off?”

And I said, “I dunno.” [Laughing.]

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Robinson: From then on it seems like the experiments are constructive and expanding the boundaries. More than just confidence, it seems like you have some mastery over your skills.

Gerhard: Wow, mastery already, huh? That’s very generous of you. Well, we’re that many issues into it, and it does like a lot better already. So, I guess, thankfully, I’m a fairly quick learner. [Laughter.] I wouldn’t quite call it mastery.

Robinson: Well, of the things that are in the repertoire.

Gerhard: Yes, slowly building up the bag of tricks. Get rid of the stuff that doesn’t work, refine the stuff that does. But you know, it’s funny. Just because of the sheer size of this story and the sheer number of pages involved, after a while your bag of tricks slowly fills up and you can refine them. I would look at the page, and I would see what needed to be done in my estimation, and I would decide which technique, which little trick from my toolbox I was going to use in any given situation. And as the years go by that starts to feel like hackwork. I’m just doing the same stuff over and over again. And it’s like, I would almost become hesitant to try new techniques, because it was a monthly book. We had to average a page and a half a day to get this thing out every month. I guess every once in a while if the situation was right and I was feeling confident I would try something else, but otherwise it was stick with what works. Day in, day out, month after month, year after year. It just started to feel like hack work, almost.

Robinson: It must have been tempting to get more conservative in a certain way.

Gerhard: Yeah. But it was also just developing a style; you have to stay with a style. Also, because I stayed fairly consistent, it gave Dave the freedom to change up styles, a different feel for a different character, and as long as the backgrounds stayed the same it wasn’t a jarring change in the overall look of the book. I guess my point was that after so long the bag of tricks gets full and it seems like I’m doing the same thing over and over again.

Robinson: On 416, there’s a couple of visual devices that you inherited from issues that you didn’t work on.

Gerhard: Are you talking about the streams of light?

Robinson: Yeah. What was your reaction to those things that you were called upon to replicate?

Gerhard: Not happy. Not happy, no. It was difficult to try to emulate some of the things that Dave had done. I would have much rather he had done those streams of light, because I think he was better at it.

Robinson: So 513 is the “Odd Transformations” story. And it seems like the first time that what’s happening in the foreground is completely dependent on what’s happening on the background.

Gerhard: I loved all the dream sequences. I loved doing that stuff.

Robinson: So how did you guys coordinate those types of things? [Long pause.] Or did you coordinate? [Laughter.]

Gerhard: Well, this is probably the reason I loved doing them so much. Because it was a dream sequence, I guess I didn’t feel that I was constricted as much. It could look different and it didn’t matter. Because it was a dream somehow that liberated me from feeling like I had to stay just in the background. You know, page 512 I always liked, the panel on the bottom.

Robinson: That’s another one where the lighting is so dramatic that it’s hard for me to imagine how you guys could coordinate that without doing some type of joint planning.

Gerhard: From the shadows on the character I could tell which way the light was coming from. So I knew where I would have to put the table lamp. Then it was just a matter of designing the room around him and getting the perspective right, and then putting the shadows where they would fall if there was a light sitting on the table. And then bingo bango, there you are.

Robinson: How did you develop your pre-visualization? I would imagine it wasn’t always that keen. When you’re looking at a page like that, what process is going on as far as being able to visualize the elements you need on the page?

Gerhard: With this one, there’s two elements I’m considering first. The first one is where’s the light source, and the second one is finding the horizon line. For this, he’s on the floor and we’re looking straight down like we’re a fly on the ceiling, so I knew right away that this one would be one point perspective. And again, determining the light source from the shadows on the character. After I’ve determined those things it’s just a matter of building the room.

Robinson: Of construction.

Gerhard: Yeah, constructing a room and then going back to the light source and figuring out where the shadows would be. So getting back to the dream — when the characters interacted with the background, Dave would usually just draw with a pencil line — indicating, say, the edge of a table. Sometimes if it would be important to the story he would draw a rectangle or whatever with the word window in it — or he would just very quickly sketch a window in.

On page 516 where the nurse character is in the partial sphere there, and she’s getting enveloped in the water, I remember that was me — I’m not exactly sure what Dave had intended there — he gave me no real indication. And again, because it was a dream issue, and because of Dave’s philosophy of doing something just because it occurs to you, well, that’s what I did. And then at the bottom left, where Cerebus breaks through the panel borders, and you can see all the reflections in the water, that was me too. There was no indication from Dave that that was supposed to happen. The dream issues were always a little liberating for me because all bets were off. On 521 where the one tree snakes from one panel to the other, that was my decision. Dave really gave me free rein on the backgrounds.

For the longest time Dave would work only a page or two ahead of me, and I was on a need-to-know basis. I still enjoyed reading the book one page at a time. So if there was something really important to the story that needed to be on the page, he would either quickly rough it in, or write window or whatever.

Robinson: So if you wouldn’t mind moving to Church and State 2… In a certain way I have less to ask you about as your skills …

Gerhard: As it became more obvious what I was trying to do? [Laughter.]

Robinson: You added so much in the first 600, 700 pages, there’s just an incredible amount of forward progress. And your technique becomes more invisible.

Gerhard: That was another thing that I was always trying to do, not to make what I was doing too obvious. All the early stuff just looks too obvious.

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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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