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

Posted by on February 15th, 2011 at 12:01 AM

Previously: Part One.

Sean Michael Robinson: What was it like having a fresh starting place for the first time with Jaka’s Story?

Floor plan of Jaka’s apartment: click to view larger image.

Preliminary drawings — Jaka’s kitchen. Click to view larger image

Gerhard: Well I completely designed the environment — the interior of Jaka’s apartment, the interior of Pud’s store and tavern — before we started doing any actual pages.  I gave Dave all those items. There were floor plans, there were 3-D views. I designed all that stuff because we wanted a real sense of place. The Church and State story arc was done and this was the first book we were starting on together. So I created those environments and Dave stuck to them as well as he could. I think I spent a month on the designs. This is where we started getting behind the monthly schedule. We were also falling behind at the end of Church and State because we were doing a lot of promotional stuff, traveling, signings and conventions.

Robinson: Well, you guys did that double issue in attempt to catch up …

Gerhard: Yeah, we did a lot of things later in an attempt to catch up. But at the beginning of Jaka’s Story we decided to take the time at the expense of the monthly schedule. Especially since Dave let me know we would be in this location for a while. I really did want to establish right off the bat where we were and what it was going to look like. Because up until this point the only recurring location was the hotel that Cerebus was in, but it was done on the fly. If I drew a room once I would have to refer back to it — try to figure out what it might look like from another angle. And I wanted to have all that established ahead of time so that when it came time to actually do the pages, all I’d have to do was look at the characters Dave had drawn, where they were supposed to be standing, and then from my floor plan I could extrapolate what you should be seeing behind them.

More preliminary drawings —  Oscar’s living room. Click to view larger image.

More preliminary drawings —Jaka’s living room. Click to view larger image.

It was almost like transcribing. My first considerations would be light source and horizon line. And a lot of the stuff was done pretty close to Cerebus’ eye level. And it was just a matter of looking at the floor plan and establishing the view.

Robinson: There’s some more extreme lighting, for instance, shadows from the windows on top of the characters while they’re sleeping. Are there any instances where you’d go back in and put lighting on top of the characters?

Gerhard: Very rarely. With the shadows from the cross-pieces of the window, sure. But very rarely would I put a crosshatched shadow across a character — more often than not I’d just move the shadow.

Robinson: Did you have any physical models at this point?

Gerhard: For Jaka’s Story? I don’t think so. It was all pretty much floor plans and elevations. I didn’t actually make a physical model until Melmoth.

Robinson: And that was primarily because of the canted streets?

Gerhard: Yes [Laughter.] That made my head hurt. “I’m not doing this any more. I’m building a model.”

Robinson: The only major ink technique you seem to have added was using that fine dot tone for clouds.

Gerhard: Yeah. I tried cutting out the clouds but it would just have too hard of an edge.  I tried using white paint on top of the tone but wasn’t happy with that. I found that if I pressed hard enough I could erase the dots on the tone to just soften that edge.

Robinson: I was wondering because it’s pretty common in manga, but I hadn’t seen it in American comics before. But I didn’t think you had any direct exposure to manga.

Gerhard: Nope. It was just something I made up.

Robinson: Moving on to Melmoth … I was interested to see that you had a lot more overt atmospheric effects, in terms of weather reflecting characters’ emotional states. Obviously it’s thematically related, but was that directly from Dave or were you just responding to the morbid nature of the material itself?

Gerhard: By this point, we had an unspoken understanding. I don’t think there was a whole lot of discussion. He really left the backgrounds up to me. Like the scene where they’re walking up the street and the characters are all in silhouette, it’s obvious that it’s night and it’s very dark. My challenge is: How do I make it dark and make it so you still see silhouettes?

Robinson: I suppose if you handed him back a page and it’s completely black that might not be …

Gerhard: That might not go over so well. [Laughter.]

Robinson: The other thing I noticed in this particular one is having selected portions of the page whited out reflecting Cerebus’ emotional state — 121.

Gerhard: Yeah, having the background collapse in on him. That was Dave’s suggestion. On page 122, for example, where he’s in the kitchen, the background’s all foggy around him, but when the other character comes in, there’s a full background.

Robinson: Was Dino’s Cafe modeled on any particular building?

Gerhard: The cafe itself? No. But Dino is.

Robinson: Yeah, I recognized him. [Laughter.] What was your architecture background then?

Gerhard: I took drafting in high school, but that was about it.

Robinson: On 130, we get a pretty good view of the exterior.

Gerhard: Melmoth was another one where I basically designed the street before we got too far in the story. When it came time to design the buildings, I’d go to the library and take out a bunch of books and just take any architectural features that I found interesting and use those. Photo books from Europe.

Robinson: In the doctor’s office, and Oscar’s final resting place, were any of those researched details?

Gerhard: I couldn’t find anything specific. All I knew was that the wallpaper had to be really ugly. [Laughter.] Because of Oscar’s famous last line.

Robinson: Mission accomplished. [Laughter.] That’s a beautiful rendering of the ugly wallpaper. Although I think you’d be hard-pressed to find attractive wallpaper.

Gerhard: That’s true. Although I had a lot of fun with the covers from Reads, with the wallpaper motif. Those were all based on Barry Windsor Smith’s stuff.

Robinson: I was wondering how many classic ink illustrators you’d looked at. Did you ever see the Arthur Guptill book Rendering in Pen and Ink?

Gerhard: Geez, I’ve got a book named that. I wonder if that’s the same one.

Robinson: It’s the one written in the ’30s and reprinted sporadically since then.

Gerhard: Here it is! Arthur Guptill.

I would refer back to it. Not that I would want to emulate anything in particular, because, again, I was just better off drawing the way I draw, but I would look through that and think, “Wow, that’s the stuff.”  Well, here we go, I just flipped it open and I obviously used some of that in Church and State, in the room that Jaka was in. Page 211. And here on 212 was the basis for one of the Epic illustrations. Not the color stories, but one of the individual illustrations we did and I colored up. That was definitely a reference for one of them.

Click to view larger image.

So, yeah, this book was something I would refer to often. But not too often, because sometimes I would just get out-and-out intimidated, as in “I can’t do that.” Another one was Winsor McCay, Daydreams and Nightmares, and towards the end of the doing Cerebus I found Franklin Booth’s Painter with a Pen. It’s phenomenal.

Robinson: Booth was incredible. He’s got a bunch of work in the Guptill book too.

Gerhard: Obviously, he would have to be in there. When I first started on Cerebus, I was over-rendering, using way too many lines. I tried to be more economical as I went along. But there was definitely a big learning curve for me.

Robinson: The reason I brought up that book is that you’re the only comic artist I can think of working in black and white that actually gave a full range of value, like the classic pen-and-ink illustrators would. Although there are some exceptions, in the American idiom of working in black and white, people are reaching for that Milton Caniff-like using contour as a container for color that never appears.

Gerhard: I know what you mean. That goes back to the grayscale that is in my head that was ingrained by my babysitter.

Robinson: That’s a crazy story. I really love that.

Gerhard: It’s amazing where influences come from. I remember I was doing an interview a long time ago with someone who said they really admired my use of light and shadow, and it suddenly dawned on me that that’s what it’s all about. Without light and without shadow you wouldn’t see much of anything.

Robinson: I know you’ve expressed frustration with the pen-and-ink medium in the past. I was wondering if you’d considered the idea that pen-and-ink is in a way a more permanent medium than any other visual artistic medium in the sense that I can take a cheap, printed-on-newsprint copy of a drawing you worked on and make a million copies of it and it’ll have some fidelity to the original in a way that no other medium can.

Gerhard: That’s true to an extent, but you know, it’s amazing to see the difference between the printed book and the original artwork. If you ever see a copy of the Winsor McCay book, look at the difference between the illustration on the cover, which is a giant multi-layered, multi-winged multi-engined airship, and then it’s reproduced much smaller on the title page, and all that delicate line work is filled in to solid black. And that’s sometimes the difference between the original art and the printed version. I look at that and I think, “I’m not going to do all that crosshatching when it’s just going to fill in to solid black anyway.”

Robinson: So you think that’s largely an illusion, because the reader hasn’t seen the original.

Gerhard: In some cases. As the book went along I tried to draw for how it was going to reproduce rather than how it was going to look on the original art. For me the cover of this Winsor McCay book, with all the crosshatching and the gray values that are on the cover, I’m sure this is how Winsor McCay intended it. There’s almost no solid black on here. That’s more towards my way of thinking. And in the smaller reproduction on the title page, that would be more Dave’s interpretation of things. The small one works too. It just doesn’t look like a Winsor McCay drawing.

Robinson: So, moving on to Flight. On page 24 is the Red Marches, which we’ve heard about for a long time, but every exterior up till this point has been in 22-year-old Dave style. What’s on your checklist of things to accomplish?

Gerhard: Well, I tried to refer back to whatever Dave might have done, but in this case there really wasn’t much to refer to. So it was pretty much left up to me. And what I was going for was a big wide-open nothing. At one point, Dave told me that when he’s drawing the characters standing around an empty page of solid white that he’s got an idea of what it will look like when I’m done. Sometimes it would be pretty close to what he was thinking, and sometimes it would be completely different from what he was thinking. [Chuckles.]

Robinson: On 94, there’s a beautiful image that would make my head hurt — of the foundry. What type of research was involved in this?

Gerhard: Dave and I made it up.

Robinson: Really.

Click to view larger image.

Gerhard: Yeah. I thought, “How the heck would you pour a sphere of gold?” That was another thing that Dave said early on that stuck with me. He said you can do research and you can find out how it was done, but he preferred to just make it up. That this is how it’s done in Cerebus’ world. This is an instance where I took that and did that myself. What would a mold look like for a giant sphere of gold? So I just started thinking about it and did a bunch of little sketches and this seems at least somewhat feasible [laughing] and then it was just a matter of drawing it. Now that I think of it, though, I seen to recall that Dave might have made a very rough indication of how this was done. But most of the particulars were left up to me. This is the blast furnace up here, and it would pour out of this spout into the big ladle thing that would be kept warm; this is like a warming pad that would keep the gold warm until they could hoist the ladle up to the chute that would pour it into the spherical mold.

Robinson: That’s the perfect illustration of what I was hinting at before. Whatever else is happening in the story, you’re providing a grounding for those things.

Gerhard: Well, my job was just the backgrounds, so I gave the backgrounds a lot of thought. When it was just close-ups of the characters and a lot of dialogue then I would try to focus more on the design aspect, try to keep it simple. That’s when I started using more solid blacks and whatnot. But when it came to panels like this I would give it considerable thought toward trying to make Cerebus’ world a little more real.

Robinson: A texture to it. So I was wondering if you ever had trouble working out perspective with the figures as they were given to you.

Gerhard: Oh, absolutely. If I actually went through some of these pages, I know there’s many instances where Cerebus is interacting with other characters, where if Cerebus is only three feet tall, he would be hovering a foot above the floor. So there are all sorts of instances where I would have to put a step or a platform for one or the other characters to stand on so they wouldn’t be hovering above the floor. Sometimes I just could not find a horizon line. There would be some conflicts where some of Dave’s characters would not fit into the perspective. I would take the perspective from the largest character, or the majority of the characters, and work from there, and anyone that didn’t fit into that perspective, that’s just the way it is.

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