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

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

Robinson: Moving to Reads, other than making up some time, was it a relief to work on some individual illustrations?

Gerhard: Yeah. I liked doing that, getting a more illustrational quality.

Robinson: Of course, in opposition to that you have the tremendous amount of time spent in the throne room.

Gerhard: Yeah. If I had that to do over again, I would not do it the same way, that’s for sure.

Click to view larger image.

Robinson: Which aspect?

Gerhard: The reflection. [Knowing laughter.] I wouldn’t make the floor quite so shiny. [Laughter.] Maybe a big area rug in the middle.

Robinson: Did you know going in that you were gonna have a slow-motion fight that was going to last 80 pages?

Gerhard: Had I known that was coming up, no. No way. I definitely would have done the floor differently. It still comes back to haunt me. Dave and I did a commission for a fella, he wanted a scene from the throne room, and Dave drew it from a high perspective, looking down. So 75 percent of it was the floor. Before I did this commission, I had done the cover for the Following Cerebus “Dreams” issue, the Escher thing, where you can see both down and up. And I used the same sort of perspective trick on this thing. Now that I’m looking at it I’m not a hundred percent sure that it works, but I did the best job I could.

Cerebus commission, 2008 or 2009

Robinson: The scenes in the throne room in Reads are really beautiful. I noticed you seemed to use ruled lines for the first time.

Gerhard: Some of the lines were just too long. I developed this technique where I would pivot on my elbow holding the pen lightly, but, because of that, the longer the lines get, the more they would arc, and the harder it was to keep the lines a consistent distance from each other. And some mornings I was just too shaky for that.  I don’t like doing the crosshatching with a ruler, but sometimes it’s just unavoidable.

Robinson: It works for me because the surfaces are just a little colder, and so the lack of texture of the line adds to that.

Gerhard: I guess that’s why I figured I could get away with that there.

Robinson: When I was looking back through these books I was surprised at how stylistically consistent the Mothers and Daughters books are for the most part. They’re all pretty close to Church and State 2, whereas Jaka’s Story and Melmoth seem of a piece to me. I suppose that’s pretty natural, since they take place in pretty similar environments. So anyway, if you wouldn’t mind skipping ahead to Guys

Gerhard: The one thing with this book is the lack of a panel outline. That actually proved to be quite challenging sometimes. If I didn’t have something in the corner defining the panel, then I needed to have something in the corner in the next panel. I’m glad we tried it, but I’m glad we stopped. We used white Letratape for the nice, sharp edges.

Robinson: Where did the jagged Letratape come from?

Gerhard: Dave just started using that. He liked the hand-drawn quality to it. It became an iconic thing. I liked it because I could crosshatch on top of it and not have to stop the pen lines right at the panel border. For longer crosshatched lines, it was useful for me to have a large area of solid black for me to dump the line into so I didn’t have to stop. With the tape on the borders, whether it was the jagged stuff on the clear carrier or the white, I could just ink right on to the tape and I didn’t have to stop the line. And when I was done I would just take my knife and scrape the ink off, leaving a nice, crisp straight edge.

Robinson: That active edge is the curse of the crosshatcher.

Gerhard: Definitely.

Robinson: On 114, there’s that great seasonal change.

Click to view larger image.

Gerhard: Oh yeah. That kind of worked, didn’t it?

Robinson: It’s a lot better than a caption box that says “later …”

Gerhard: And I liked those pages. Working on the other pages was great, but working behind something Dave already inked there was always this fear in the back of my mind about ruining one of Dave’s pages. Plus, like you said, the curse of the crosshatcher, I couldn’t just dump the line into the character; I would have to stop the line right on the edge of the character or the word balloons — I was always working behind something else. So a page like this that was completely blank when I started — those were pretty rare.

Robinson: I’d imagine it was a relief too to not be drawing the inside of the damned bar.

Gerhard: Yeah, any chance to get out of the bar.

Robinson: I’m curious what it’s like to do that kind of passive drawing. Passive in the sense that you’re working from a template that you’ve already planned out, and just mapping it to something that’s not under your control whatsoever.

Gerhard: Well, it goes back to what I was saying earlier. I’ve already worked out what’s in the bar, and what you would see from that angle. It’s a very formulaic thing. But one of the other things to consider is that I can’t have gray behind Cerebus — if I had gray tone or crosshatching he would just disappear. Nothing works better behind Cerebus than solid white or solid black. So that was always a consideration too.

Robinson: Nice work with the bar chairs, then. [Laughter.]

Gerhard: Yeah, bar chairs, shadows, windows. Throw something in behind the stupid little gray thing. Otherwise you can’t see him. And it really is his book, so you should be able to see him. In a lot of ways it was also a time saver, because I did know I could use a lot of solid black, and it’s just chairs and the bar and a few bottles or whatever, and it left me more time to do the pages where we were outside the bar — either playing Five Bar Gate, the geese or whatever. The interior ones were “Boom, boom, boom, move on.” The whole thing with the bar, too, the intention of it thematically is that this is where guys go to drink themselves to death. So it couldn’t be cheery — it had to be stark. It doesn’t have any decoration. It’s just like a jail cell.

Robinson: Is there a point where working on Cerebus became a job? Maybe that’s a naive question — maybe it was always a job for you …

Gerhard in the studio: notice the row of pages on the wall to the right.

Gerhard: It was always treated like a job. In a lot of respects Dave treated it that way too. Although Dave lived and breathed this book — he was always writing and he was always thinking about it. But for me I would go in every day and it was a 9-to-5 thing. I would try to get so much done before lunch, and try to get my page and a half done by 5-6 o’clock, pack up and go home. So in a lot of respects it was a job from day one. But — especially early on — it was a learning thing and very exciting and challenging in that way. But by the time we were at Guys, at least for me, the important thing was to get the pages done by the end of the day. At the same time I had to be happy with or at least accepting of how the pages turned out. And some of the days were better than others. One of the nice things was we always had twenty nails in the wall with clips on them and when the pages were done they would go up on the wall, and you could stand back and look at what you had done that day or that week or that month. The depressing part was taking them all down and having a wall to fill up again. [Laughing.]

Robinson: There’s not an awful lot of jobs where you have a physical product like that that you can point to.

Gerhard: Yeah. But like I said, some days are better than others. That early stuff. But you have to consider the time constraints. I look back on it now and look at the stack of artwork that we’ve got, you know, it’s 6,000 pages. Who in the hell does 6,000 pages? Who were those guys? How did we ever manage to do that?

Robinson: Flipping through now, are you really having a lot of those cringe moments?

Gerhard: Not that we’re in the later stuff, no. But Church and State was brutal. Even with the later stuff, some pages work better than others. When we first flipped to the pages with the geese, I was like “Hey! That’s not so bad.” That was the funny thing, too. We would get the original art done, and that gets sent off to the printer, and the monthly book would come back in, and at first we were concerned with the print quality. “OK, that filled in, that was too light.” But we’re always making adjustments a month behind. And I was always striving to do better, never really satisfied with the results at the time. But when the reprint book would come in, enough time had passed. We’d sit down and look through it, just to make sure that the pages were all in the right order and that sort of thing. But inevitably we’re flipping through going, “Geez, that’s pretty good. That’s not so bad — what the hell was I complaining about? Geez, lighten up!” Or even worse, “That worked really well. Why can’t I draw like that now?”

all images © their respective copyright owners.

Tomorrow: In the conclusion of this interview, Gerhard talks about Rick’s Story, Going Home, Form and Void and more.

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