The Craft Behind Cerebus: An Interview with Gerhard (Part Three of Three)

Posted by on February 16th, 2011 at 12:01 AM

Robinson: Just thinking about the thing you were saying about looking at all those slides and watching your life flash before your eyes, when you look back on all of these pages, as we’ve covered about 16 years of your life, do you look at certain pages and think about what you were actually doing at the time?

Gerhard: It’s odd. We actually talked about that. When the reprint book would come back from the printer and we would sit down and page through, to see if it would reminds us of what was going on that day or what was going on in our lives at the time. And there’s actually very few pages where that was the case. It’s kind of odd how it’s not connected to what was going on in my life at the time. The page is what the page is.

Robinson: So they’re capable of existing as objects for you at this point?

Gerhard: Absolutely. There are very few pages where when I look at them I can picture what was going on at the time.

Robinson: So, next up is Form and Void. Where did the contrast come from?

Gerhard: That was a stylistic choice from Dave. Because it was a new story arc, he wanted it to look completely different.

Robinson: Did he have any particular artist he referenced, or was it like “let’s cut out the grays.”

Gerhard: Whenever he wanted me to cut out the grays he would say, “Al Williamson.” “Jeff Jones.” That sort of thing. And by this time I was finally able to let it go. A lot of times I look at other people’s stuff I would think, “Geez, I wish I could draw like that, but it’s just not what I do.” And it seemed to me that every time I would try to do that stark black and white stuff it would be … unsatisfying, to say the least. Just flipping through the book and looking at it now, some pages work better than others, but for the most part I got a better handle on it. But it took a long time! We’re near the end of the book here. But for the most part I think it works OK.

Robinson: So, for instance, 407, is that primarily brush?

Gerhard: I could never really ink with a brush. Oh, yeah, that’s part of a larger drawing. If you go to pages 422 and 423, that’s the master drawing that everything in this sequence is based on. There was a lot of photocopying. We had a photocopier in the office that produced really good solid blacks. If you look at the top left corner of page 422 and then go back to page 407, that’s where it came from.

Robinson: So that’s why I thought it might be a brush. It’s expanded so much.

Gerhard: Well, looking at the master drawing, I probably used a brush for the larger branches, and then a pen for the finer ones. And then I would blow up that top left corner probably about 300 percent, and then go in with a pen on the photocopy and add some detail to the branches and some of the leaves, things like that. All of the next pages are photocopied parts of that master drawing. Again, on page 413 that’s a good chunk of the master drawing there. The real pain in the butt in doing that was the process. The master drawing was done on a completely separate piece of illustration board. I would photocopy it and photocopy the page that Dave drew with the characters on it, and I would take the copy of the master drawing and put that on top of the photocopy of the page, and with a light box cut out around the characters and the word balloons. And then I would spray the back of the photocopy with adhesive, line it up carefully and stick it onto the illustration board around Dave’s characters, and then I would have to go in with a pen and fill in the gap between the characters and the photocopies.

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Robinson: It sounds excruciating.

Gerhard: Time saving on one hand and excruciating on the other, yup.

Robinson: Looking at all these stark blacks, it’s hard for me to imagine how you’d visualize some of these things without photo reference.

Gerhard: That master drawing probably was photo referenced. I know the building was, because that building actually appears on one of the photo covers of these issues. I don’t know if the tree in the foreground was. That’s the way it went a lot of the time. I would use certain elements from photos and the rest of it I would make up. It’s just a matter of making the invented elements look not too dissimilar from the photo-referenced stuff.

Robinson: There seems to be a divide between cartoonists that are generating something that acts as a symbol for an object or using construction to build an object, whereas a lot of fine-arts training is almost completely about using your eye to record what you see. It seems to me that it’s kind of rare for someone to have both those skills working on all cylinders. So, how much reference did you use on, say, 444 + 445?

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Gerhard: That was all made up.

Robinson: And at this point you start to bring in some grays again.

Gerhard: Mostly on the tent. And the rest of it is all still pretty much either black or white. In each of these sequences, for the first panel it’s not immediately apparent what we’re looking at. And then we pull back more and more until we arrive at the master drawing. On 390 it’s basically one big camera move. We dolly down into this room where we see the two of them sitting there, on 392 and 393, and then we start to pull out of this room. That sequence on page 395, that’s supposed to be the edge of the doorway, the cracks in the plaster and the paint. I remember Dave telling me, “It’s got to be just cracks and flakes,” and I remember thinking, “What are you on about now?” And he said that thematically speaking, he wanted it to represent that nothing will stand up to that close scrutiny without dissolving into minor faults. Nothing was accidental when it came to Dave.

Robinson: The texture on the gun is incredible. It definitely makes it a red flag for the future sequences. So tell me about the airship. It must have been enjoyable to design that.

Gerhard: Yeah. This sequence is based on the Hemingway stuff. He gave me the book that he was using for reference, with the stories of the two plane crashes. And we were both sort of like, “How the hell do we get airplanes into Cerebus?” And he knew my affinity for airplanes — I’ve always been into them ever since I was a kid. It’s been airplanes and drawing for me for as long as I can remember. So he set the task for me to design an airship that could exist in Cerebus’ world. I knew because of the sound effects on 468 and 469 that it would have to be steam-powered. And obviously it would be a balloon, so the steam could provide hot air for the balloon.

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And I’ve always been interested in boating too, ever since I started sailing, so it was a matter of combining those elements. So I’ve got a hot-air balloon and a boat that uses a big wing-like or duck-feet-like paddles that uses those to push itself through the sky. This was another thing that I made a computer model of. On 524, the sequence where it’s circling the falls, is the actual sequence of how the paddles move. They go flat and straight for the forward motion so that there’s the least amount of air resistance, and they turn so they grab as much air as possible, and then they swing back and push the airship forward. And I had all that on a computer model, a very simple one, just to make sure I had the sequence right, so this thing could kind of paddle its way through the sky. Then there’s the big crash scene on 537 — that was fun to do.

Robinson: So it was similar to the foundry in that you didn’t research any early steps of flight.

Gerhard: No, this had to be something right out of left field, that only existed in Cerebus’ world. Because I’d been such a fan of airplanes and flight, I was already really aware of the early steps of flight. So it was more like, “How would I have done it?” I don’t actually have to physically do it myself, but in theory anyway, how would I approach it?

Robinson: 537 is a really beautiful page.

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Gerhard: That was from a photo reference. That was the actual falls in Africa that they crashed near.

Robinson: Were you using Rapidographs at this point?

Gerhard: I believe I was. I was much more comfortable with them, and they were less of a pain. You know, I never got the hang of the variable line width, so I was mostly doing a consistent line width anyway, so I might as well just go back to the Rapidograph.

Robinson: For lines you needed to be thicker, larger contours and things like that, would you just build them up with the fixed width pen, or would you use a nib for some of those elements?

Gerhard: I think I had two or three different pen sizes. I would use the thicker ones for the darkest areas and work down to the finest ones.

Robinson: What are your impressions when you look through this book now, as far as the stylistic change?

Gerhard: Well, it certainly does have an impact. It’s completely different from the rest of the book.  In a way that was a little odd — that was something I was trying to avoid all along. But Dave was very clear that it should be completely different.

Robinson: Well, it definitely looks freezing. Like your eyes are burned out from staring at the snow and the reflection of the sun.

Gerhard: Dave was glad we finally got there. I think he would have liked us to have used that look in some of the earlier stories, but like I said, I was having this thing about drawing the way I draw. And not being comfortable with other stuff. Even looking at it now, there’s a lot of empty space and a lot of empty panels and a lot of white. There wasn’t a lot for me to do on a lot of these pages. And again my Judeo-Christian work ethic would kick in and I would think, “You know, I’m not earning my paycheck here.”   But I looked at it that the time I saved on the pages where I didn’t have anything to do, the more time I could spend on a page like 564, 565.

Click to view larger image.

Robinson: That’s a great spread. That was actually one of the pages that made me wonder about the Guptill book, that if you weren’t familiar with the book in particular, you were at least familiar with some of the artists.

Gerhard: It’s well thumbed-through.

Robinson: Those birch trees — how would you build those up?

Gerhard: It was the same technique I would use with the corn: just sticking in the foreground ones and then working backwards, building up as you go.

Robinson: How often did you erase as a stage of your inking, as in inking up the foreground trees and then erasing and building up again in pencil?

Gerhard: Oh, no. Basically I ink from the foreground to the background, getting deeper into the page as I inked. Primarily my main concern when I’m inking is to ink from left to right, to avoid smudging. So I would do both at the same time, inking from the foreground to the background while working from left to right. And the same with the penciling. At this point we were doing our preliminary drawings on tracing paper and then transferring them over, but I’m not sure how much that really influenced my process.

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7 Responses to “The Craft Behind Cerebus: An Interview with Gerhard (Part Three of Three)”

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  2. Sean Michael Robinson says:

    You can read some final thoughts on this interview over at the Hooded Utilitarian-

  3. vollsticks says:

    Great, great interview! So interesting to get such a deep insight into how those wonderful pages were made. The stuff at the end from the children’s book reminds me a little of Denis Kitchen’s work, for some reason…

  4. Sean Michael Robinson says:

    Glad you enjoyed it! It was really interesting for me to see Gerhard’s children’s book artwork, especially having seen so many thousand pages of fairly realistically rendered work. Although looking back on some segments of “Going Home” especially, I can see some antecedents to the bounciness and light artwork of “the Wish”.

  5. nobodyowns says:

    Great interview, Sean– best I’ve ever read with Gerhard. You were absolutely right to focus on the man’s craft and it was an illuminating look into his enormous contributions to Cerebus.

    Question: something I’ve been wondering since I picked up Cerebus 186 back in 1993 or whenever that was: how does he pronounce Gerhard? That’s a common German first name, but does he pronounce the G like G as in Gate (as the Germans do) or like J in Jerry?

    That said, most of the houses in Church and State and Mothers and Daughters look quite German (people used to often mention the “Bavarian” look of Cerebus’ world). I wonder if, given Gerhard’s German name and presumably German heritage, there was a conscious influence there?

    Gerhard, if you’re reading this, THANK YOU for so many years of wonderful artwork. You created countless unforgettable images in Cerebus that now, even though it’s been years since I’ve read the books, come to mind so vividly.

  6. Sean Michael Robinson says:


    It’s G as in “gate,” German style. “Gairhard.” I believe Gerhard’s parents are German immigrants, actually.

    That’s a great question about the architecture- perhaps if he’s reading he’ll respond himself? The building design throughout the series is pretty striking, although some of the main architectural features of Iest are inherited from the pre-Gerhard portions of the book. Sim described one particular High Society-era street scene like this- “My attempt at the time to convey the rooftops of Paris at the time of the French Revolution.”

  7. Michael Grabowski says:

    Thanks, Sean and Gerhard, for the interview and a too-long ignored look at this aspect of making Cerebus. Thanks, tcj for posting it.