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

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

Robinson: So we’re on the last two books now. Dave talks a lot about the process in the back matter of the books, for instance, about you not wanting to go ahead when you were working on the two-page spread of the Sanctuary. Were things really that much different for you working on the last two books?

Gerhard: I’m not sure I’m understanding what you’re getting at.

Robinson: Well, in Dave’s portrayal of things in the notes at the end of the books, you come across as being very frustrated with your work, and on the verge of quitting, not really sure if you could continue, having a really tough time of it. I guess what I’m asking is, did it feel really different, or did you always have that level of frustration?

Gerhard: I did always have a level of frustration and it was also a cumulative thing. I’m looking at that Sanctuary spread now. I remember showing it to Dave when I was done with it and being completely disappointed with it. Not so much even the idea of having to draw it over and over, just disappointment at the end result, working within the time constraints.

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Robinson: Is that how you feel now?

Gerhard: Well, it’s hard to remember exactly what Dave said at the time, but it was something along the lines of any disappointments I have with it, someone else just isn’t going to see it. It is an impressive two-page spread, it works as far as light and shadow, although it didn’t reproduce very well — it’s starting to break up in the lower left hand corner. I must have driven the people at Preney crazy, trying to get all these little lines to not fill in but making sure they didn’t break up. I dunno. [Long sigh.] It’s almost as if going in I knew I wasn’t going to be happy with it, and I was right. If I had it to do over again, I don’t know that it would look all that different. It almost always got down to the time constraints. This was the best I could do with the time that I had. And Dave’s basic point was, given the time that you had, you’ve done a pretty damn good job. And I was like, well, I’d much rather have spent two or three times the amount of time on it than I had available.

Robinson: I noticed that you’ve added some new ink textures here in some of the outside scenes, like on 169. I’m such an ink nerd. “Oooh, look at this gravel texture!”

Gerhard: Oh yeah. I was pretty happy with how that turned out. There wasn’t a lot of crosshatching involved, it’s just paying attention to light and shadow. That was a good day — I had a good day that day. The good ones always seemed few and far between. When one did come along, I would always wonder, “Well, why did that work today?” There’s a story I read about Sir Laurence Olivier giving a performance of Hamlet. And at the end of the show the audience was giving a standing ovation, and the rest of the cast members were applauding. And this was just one show in the run, but for some reason this one just stood head and shoulders above the rest. And rather than taking the stage and accepting the accolades he left in a huff — he was very upset. And somebody finally talked to him in the dressing room or whatever and said, “What’s the matter? That was the most brilliant performance possibly of your entire career!” And he said, “I know, but I don’t know why!” [Laughter.]

Robinson: Conversely, there’s the person that’s become so inured to the applause and becomes dissatisfied with the fact that their best efforts and their mediocre nights essentially get the same reaction.

Gerhard: That’s the funny thing. There were certain pages where I would be really happy, and they would get no reaction at all. “Look, it’s another Gerhard page.” You know. And I’d think,”But no, this one’s really good!” Well, whatever. I don’t get it.

Robinson: On 252 when the real heavy text starts to creep in, you get a chance to stretch out a little on the individual illustrations.

Gerhard: Yeah, I like the illustrative, heavy contour of the foreground fading out into the fine pen lines of the background.

Robinson: On 272 there’s an unusual spread. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it looks like an animal drawn by you facing off with animals drawn by Dave.

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Gerhard: Yup, the dog was me and the sheep were Dave. That one is a little jarring, because the two foreground sheep are kind of cartoony and the dog was based on a photo. It was my friend’s border collie. But for some reason on that page I decided I wanted to draw Chester the way he looked. I didn’t make him match Dave’s sheep.

Robinson: I think it works. Passing through, I just noticed the differences between them. Part of it is the line weight, and part of it seems to be the bounciness of the figures in the foreground.

Gerhard: On that day, I thought, “This is the way I want to do it.” I spent so much time doing that, just trying to not have the backgrounds be too dissimilar from the foreground. And I guess on that day I just wanted to do what I wanted to do. And especially with that little Charlie Brown being so cartoony there, it just all seemed to not hang together as a cohesive thing. It just seemed like, “Oh screw it. I’m just going to draw Chester.” [Laughter.]

Robinson: A couple pages later you have a beautiful printing press.

Gerhard: Yeah, that one turned out all right. I used a little bit of reference for that, but I think I made it look a little more Orwellian. [Laughter.]

Robinson: Printing presses in general have an appealing kind of crudity to them.

Gerhard: Yeah, and I forced the perspective on it. I really wanted it to be this intimidating mechanical thing.

Robinson: Looking back on this book, what are your overall impressions?

Gerhard: Yeah, this is a tough one. Dave tried to explain to me what was going on when the text pieces starting showing up.  Doing all the single illustrations had some appeal for me. There was an exhibit at St. Bonaventure University where a lot of these pages were displayed, and I brought along my tracing paper versions of some of these pages.  Those went over really big. People were blown away by those. In a lot of cases, I really like my pencils better than my inks.

On 380, Dave’s done the R. Crumb style for these Woody Allen figures, and I tried to do a little more of the Crumb style. That was actually fun. And when we started working from references to the Fellini movies and stuff like that, I could just lean into that. I didn’t have to make sure it could fit into Cerebus’ world. The whole idea was to make it look like it did in the Fellini film. I rather enjoyed that. On 390, I was really happy with that sports car in the middle panel. That turned out pretty good. I remember spending a lot of time working on those spokes. [Laughter.] But reduced down like this, it doesn’t really look like an illustration in parts of it. It looks like I just pasted parts of the photocopy in there.

Click to view larger image.

Robinson: I love the dense clouds — from The Seventh Seal. It must have been interesting looking at the gorgeous cinematography.

Gerhard: With all the heavy tiny text and these really weird and disparate elements … even the style changes between the heavy clouds on 390 and the sparse stuff on the next page … and I got to draw an airplane on the next page, so it was interesting in that way … and the movie camera on 396, I liked that — by this point it was actually good for me. I enjoyed doing the photo-realistic stuff.

Robinson: So you got a little release.

Gerhard: Change is as good as the rest, right? And then of course we’re back into the Sanctuary again for a little bit. But not too long. A lot of that was because Dave did know how frustrated I was, and he was trying to change things up. There were a lot of pages with no backgrounds whatsoever. But at this point, he had really lost me as a reader.

Robinson: In Latter Days, in the end notes, Dave does some dissection of who drew what in the double issue that opens the book. So when you had that time off from the book, what were you working on?

Gerhard: I was working on that 360-degree pan of the room that’s on the cover.

Robinson: I understand that caused some problems when Dave needed Cerebus to put the manuscript in the hiding place.

Gerhard: Yeah, Dave thought it was on the other side of the room and it was really more like two feet away. [Laughter.] Yup.

Robinson: Another nerve-wracking moment.

Gerhard: Well, it just turned out to be funny. Cerebus is going, “I need to make it all the way over here,” and it’s like two feet away.

Robinson: Once again, the text in the back makes it seem like it was a real struggle for you to cross the finish line, but the work itself is great.

Gerhard: Well, I was working on designing the room and doing the 360, which was really a lot of work. I had to figure out how many vanishing points I needed. I think it was something like eight of them, so I suppose it’s done in eight-point perspective [laughter]. So you figure that one out.

Robinson: Well, you’ve got a lot of non-parallel surfaces that are parallel to other elements in the room …

Gerhard: I had to draw with a fish-eye lens quality, so that objects that would be straight have a curve to them. The chest in front of the bed has a major curve to it. Especially anything closer to the “camera” becomes more distorted and curved. That one took a long time to figure out. That’s basically what I was working on. And Dave was thinking of doing this as a master drawing thing again and just taking photocopies of it. But I wasn’t really happy with how that turned out in Form and Void. So once I had the room designed and Dave sort of sat down and said, “If we can do X amount of pages a day, we can be done by Christmas.” And I heard angels singing. That got me through to the end. “Done by Christmas.” That became the mantra. “Done by Christmas, done by Christmas.”

Robinson: So when you’re looking back on this book, is it pretty much the same feeling you have when you’re looking back on most of the stuff?

Gerhard: For the most part. There’s all these stars around Cerebus’ head depending on how out of it he is at the time, and the backgrounds shrink and expand from the edge of the panel boarder. And that actually saved a little bit of time because I didn’t have to ink to the edge of the panel. So the little panels with just his head, there really wasn’t much to do — just a little bit of crosshatching. So when I would get to a panel that actually had something for me to draw, it was good. I get to do what I do, the Gerhard thing. So it went fairly well, and getting it done by Christmas definitely motivated me .

Robinson: There’s something different happening on 110.

Gerhard: That’s all Dave. He just took a section of the master drawing and drew it how it would look without his glasses. He did a good job.

Robinson: How often would that happen?

Gerhard: Not very. Every once in a while something would strike him, probably when he had something very specific in mind. And he knew that I always preferred the more literal renditions of things. He had in his mind that he wanted it to look that way, and so he just did it. And I’m like, “Good. I didn’t have to do it, and it turned out really well. You go!”

Robinson: I’m looking at this huge stack of books next to me right now. And they obviously represent a tremendous amount of time and planning and sweat. Does all this work ever enter into your daily life now? I mean, when you meet a new person, do you tell them about it, point to the books on the shelf?

Gerhard: I did when I was actually still working on it. And [long pause] after the book was done, we did some things for Following Cerebus and quite a few other things that didn’t go anywhere. And I guess, to a certain extent, I was burnt out. And the course the book had taken at the end there … Like I said, Dave had basically lost me as a reader. It was a strange sort of phenomenon to be working on a book that I can barely even read any more. And with the things that we were trying to do after the book was done, and the direction Dave was taking with stuff, it became really apparent that we just weren’t on the same track. I remember back in the late ’80s, around issue 88, we had gone down to Gainesville, Fla. We had been there for a signing a few months before and really liked the town. It’s a university town, really a fun place. And you know, southern Ontario has some brutal weather conditions sometimes. We thought it would be fun and a unique experiment to try. So we went down to Gainesville and got adjoining hotel rooms and set up drawing boards in there.

We spent a month or two and did the book down there, and, you know, got away from the winter and any distractions that were back home. It went really well. We got to focus on the book during the day, and at night, well, like I said, it’s a university town. There’s lots of stuff to do, and there’s great bars and whatnot. And I remember we were having a really nice dinner and a really nice bottle of wine. And we toasted with a glass of this really nice wine and said something to the effect of, “Here’s to issue 300.” And it was like at that moment I had committed myself to stick it out to issue 300. Like I said, it got tough near the end there, and it was a huge undertaking, and that monthly schedule really was a bitch, but I always remember that dinner and that toast. I had committed myself to that, and that’s what I did. So after 300 was over, it was like, “OK, I did what I said I was gonna do.” And now Dave’s doing his thing, and it’s time for me to find out what my thing is.

Robinson: What do you think your thing is?

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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.