Monday, January 11, 2010

Nathan Schreiber Powers Up with the Xeric Grant

Words: Christopher Irving . Pictures: Seth Kushner

“I think our whole society has this thing about artists that I find frustrating whenever I hear it,” Nathan Schreiber says over an Americano in a Gowanus, Brooklyn café. “‘Don’t write for the audience, write stuff that you find entertaining.’ 

“Well, yes, but you act a little differently around your girlfriend’s parents then you do around your buddies at the bar. You tell stories to them, and you change the way that you tell that story for the audience. Yes, you should definitely be writing stories that you find entertaining but, why the fuck would anyone write something they don’t find entertaining?”

Schreiber’s good news a week and a half before this Americano: he just won the 2009 Xeric Award, a grant for groundbreaking cartoonists to self-publish their comic books, for his online strip Power Out.
“This isn’t the first time I applied, and I was very happy that I fucked it up the first time,” Nathan laughs about the Xeric.

“Two years ago, I sent a comic that was the magnum opus I had in my head – Consumed, which is this big economic apocalypse (I’ve studied economics in college and have had this fear about ‘What happens when the world runs out of stuff?’ it’s a tangible fear, and we’re already seeing it with oil.) I made this comic Consumed, and thought ‘Oh, man, this is great!’ and I worked up until the deadline and it was a total mess. I gave them a horrible printer. It wasn’t well prepared at all.”

    What made applying for the Xeric different this time around was that a good chunk of Power Out had already been completed and posted online at ACT-I-VATE, and drawn with the input of the comics community there and in Nathan’s studio environments. It was just a matter of “Why not?”

“One of the things frustrating about winning the award is that everybody is chipping in their opinion,” Nathan reflects. “People are offering very, very helpful opinions and it’s good. I’ve been asked to jazz up the beginning more, and I’ve come up with a beginning and it’s horrifying and exciting, but I’m not sure if it sets the right tone for the book.

“You can find insight in just about everything everyone offers to you. I pride myself on not being a stubborn person, but then I run into this problem where I’m getting lots of good advice that’s all going in different directions. If somebody offers me a good idea, I want to take it. I don’t want to refuse just to prove that I’m my own man. I want to learn from everybody, especially from all those guys at Deep 6 and XOXO. You have tons of resources and people with all these experiences right next to you. It’s just a little bit overwhelming.

“Sometimes I tell my girlfriend ‘I need a cheerleader right now.’”

Creating Power Out has been a learning experience and a trial by fire for Nathan, forcing him to break that runner’s wall and get his second wind, pushing him to realize his potential as a cartoonist. Working amongst the cartoonists of two comics studios has helped push him.

“I’ve gotten better and faster. When I started, it would take me at least three days (and typically four) to finish, letter, and color one page, and I’m working at twice that rate now,” he notes.

“A lot of it is you do something long enough you get better at it, and a lot is also working with those guys at XOXO and Deep 6, and you see how these guys approach their work. George O’Connor, I think in particular, is a guy who you look at and see how quick he is. One day he came into the studio in the afternoon and finished five pages from scratch, and then basically moonwalks out of there before dinner. It was a ridiculous amount of time, maybe four hours? He’ll go in there with a light pencil, he’ll do some very loose work, and then he’ll go straight to inks.

“I started working on this one other story before the third chapter of Power Out; it’s this Western that hopefully Vassilis Lolos and I will put in a book and try to get out for MOCCA this April. For this story, I made a very deliberate choice to finish a page in three hours. Couldn’t do it. Tried really, really hard, but couldn’t do it. But, I did finish a page in five hours, which I’d never done before. You’ve just got do it really quick and not worry about fucking up.

“When you work on a comic, you have about 200 images to draw, and someone’s going to spend just a few seconds scanning them. You pick your battles on which images need to be perfected, so you try to nail those. Then there’s stuff that isn’t a priority that you can rush through. I’ve learned a lot on backgrounds since I started Power Out: Put a lot of your work into one or two backgrounds, and then the rest of the scene can just hint at it. Use those Wally Wood tricks, and don’t keep drawing a million leaves on a tree or all of the architecture of a house. Establish it (which is why the call it an ‘establishing shot’) and then you can just hint at it with outlines and open panels.

“You learn a lot of tricks. I was struggling with a drawing that was in the foreground, and Dean Haspiel said ‘Make this a silhouette,’ and it was one of those moments where a light when off: ‘Oh, I don’t have to draw all of those internal lines if I just make it black.’ I’ve learned a lot of shortcuts and methods from those guys, and I’ve also just learned to be a more capable and competent artist.”
The affable Schreiber has serialized about half of the graphic novel so far, with plans to finish it online while facing the new challenge of printing the first issue.

“I’m very honored to have the award,” Nathan says. “I’m also very overwhelmed. I just got an ISBN number yesterday, and I don’t even know what that means. I have to pick out paper and talk to these printers. You really feel like you’re stabbing around in the dark. All my experience is writing, drawing, inking, and coloring. It’s hard enough to just make comics, but then you have to figure out printing, publishing, and price points, and distribution.”

The printing of Power Out is also coming at an interesting time in how comics are distributed and read: online comics have taken a firm foothold in the digital realm, made even firmer when a standardized reading device hits the market (which may even come this year). Power Out is a product of the web, and is now going to become a product of print in the ever-changing direct market.

“I feel like I started working on it two years ago, as soon as I lost my job,” Nathan recalls. “I was making women’s underwear for three years, doing patterns and prints. There were some parts of the job that were pretty crazy – sometimes there were models in the building – but usually pretty mundane stuff. I worked primarily in juniors’, so I worked on the stuff you’d see at Forever 21, not the type you’d see at Ann Taylor Loft.

    “Then I got laid off.  I asked them ‘Why’d you lay me off?’
    “‘Well, there’s the economy…’
    “‘Yeah, but why me?’
“‘Well, Nathan, we could start at George W. Bush and go down from there.’ I had no idea what that meant,” he jokes. “But after I lost my job, I freaked out. I thought ‘I should get a new underwear job.’ I had tentatively planned to attend the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, the school started by James Sturm, but I realized, ‘You know, now that I have this time, and I’m getting unemployment, why don’t I make my own comic?’

“I feel like there are a lot of female coming of age stories. The movie Carrie, to me, is the biggest one: she’s covered in blood, and its this gross, disgusting, and intense embodiment of menstruation. I feel like male sexuality in media is usually presented as very silly, like American Pie. It’s a big, stupid joke.”

When we first meet Justin, the protagonist of Power Out, he’s sitting on the sofa in his quiet small-town suburban home playing video games while his parents pack up for a vacation without he and his older sister. Justin exists in a virtual disconnect from his family, as well as from the party of online friends brought over by his sister later that evening. A stranger in a strange town, and lacking the social skills to fix his loneliness, the awkward Justin struggles with his burgeoning and frightening sexuality while isolating himself from the small world around him.

“I want to do what I have to do and shut myself in. I have that instinct sometimes, and I understand that it’s not a good way to live. That’s what the book is about. There’s that desire to want the real world to go away for a while."

Justin’s new hometown of Clocktown is based off of Nathan’s own hometown of Ashland, Massachusetts.

“It’s a very small community and is definitely like a bubble,” Nathan describes Ashland. “In a ways, the book is about being in that bubble and being away from the rest of the world, which is a terrifying, exhilarating place…

“I had this fantasy when I was a kid that I would want to stop time and freeze everything, and I would read a lot and learn to be an amazing artist, read books on every subject, learn how to talk to women, stuff like that. It’s embarrassing to confess, but there was that urge where I wanted everything to stop. Life was going in directions I couldn’t control, and I wasn’t ready. That’s what the main character, Justin, is looking for: an escape from the real world. He ends up getting it, and has to deal with the repercussions of that. ‘Oh, this is really lonely. What do I need to do now?’”

    After being practically abandoned by his family, Justin leaves his mundane suburban home and ventures out into the world outside him, encountering a Spanish girl named Maya, who becomes his only friend – unfortunately, there is a language barrier. He also finds himself lost in the woods, where he faces some of his own demons hand-in-hand with his own loneliness.

“It’s very dream-like, and I wanted it to feel - like you’re having a dream where maybe you already woke up and are going through your routine and then suddenly something strange happens that reminds you that it isn’t real,” Nathan elaborates. “That’s the feeling I wanted to have – this magical realism where it’s still the real world. It’s not like people are flying, jumping tall buildings, or doing things outwardly fantastic, but when remarkable things do happen it feels like it occurs in the context of real life. There’s a verisimilitude that I’m trying to achieve.”

The most disturbing scene in Power Out (at least, as of yet) is when Justin goes into an abandoned factory with the crazy elderly lady next door. When alone, she slowly unbuttons her dress, becomes young and attractive and has sex with him. Only at the very end, Justin notices her turning into an old hag again. When he awakens, he finds the evidence of his first wet dream.

“You have this stuff coming out of your body and it has a weird texture and smell - what’s going on? It’s a feeling so intense you don’t know whether or not it’s good or bad. Guys don’t talk about it in the same way that women do (there’s a lot more support there), but with guys, there’s an unwritten code that you’re not really supposed to talk about this stuff, but you’re supposed to know. It’s ridiculous.

    “I find that transformation horrific, and I want to present it that way. The scene where he’s holding his semen-drenched hand to the moonlight, I wanted it to evoke that werewolf feeling of ‘Whoa! There’s something inside me and I don’t understand it! What is going on here? What is this stuff? What am I?’”

    Inspired by the bathtub scene in The Shining, Schreiber composed an effectively frightening scene.
“There’s something to playing with people’s expectations, and hinting that you’ll give them something else. I like misleading the audience, keeping whether something is or isn’t happening a little ambiguous. I’ve seen narratives before where I’m getting deceived, and I like it, like with Fight Club. With the meandering sense that Power Out has, I feel like you can lead the audience in different directions.”

    Like Justin, Nathan has done his own degree of narrative meandering with Power Out, as his mind heads in slightly different directions than he’d originally planned:

“I started out doing character designs, writing down rough ideas, and then I did 135 thumbnail pages and went ‘Okay, there’s the story!’ But when I started working on it, I was like ‘I want to change this,’ and touched up little things, but by the time I got to the second chapter I went ‘Wow, I want to really redo pretty much everything that I’ve done!’

    “Even though I have this 135-page bible, I’m constantly rewriting it and re-editing it. Editing comics is the biggest pain in the ass in the world, because if you want to make one panel bigger then all the other panels have to get smaller; but if you have a double-page spread and it works, and you then decide to change one thing, on panel might end up on the next page and it’s all ruined. It’s a weird alchemy, almost like Tetris, in the way those panels have to fit together. When you’re editing stuff, it’s such a pain in the butt. Part of me wishes I had contained it a bit more, but I like where the story’s going.”

“I always knew how it would end, but didn’t know the aftermath, and finally got that figured out last night. It’s a constant process of writing and editing and going back. You’re trying to make it so you don’t have to go back and fix things, but it’s inevitable.”

    Power Out is about how big the world is,” Nathan says in reference to the blue spot coloring in his strip. “I’m frequently drawing the character very small, and the environment he’s in is very large. Blue is a receding color, and draws the eye back. It makes things open up a little bit; it creates a certain depth and distance, like a reverb. Have you ever listened to Animal Collective or Panda Bear? They do this effect where their voices echo while they sing, and it makes them sound as if they’re in this huge room.

    “If I colored it red, everything would be intense and in your face, and very cramped. The blue spaces things out in this huge world. It’s a story about a character who’s indifferent to his environment. I think that’s good, because he’s not a terribly passionate character.”

    While working on Power Out, Schreiber has applied his color theory to another project: coloring cartoonist Paul Pope’s upcoming graphic novel for First Second, the much-anticipated Battlin’ Boy.

    “It was really hilarious, because my initial reaction [to the offer] was ‘I’m really busy right now,’” Nathan laughs. “I was hanging out with George O’Connor and I told him I wasn’t sure whether or not I was going to this Paul Pope book.

    “And he sort of looked at me like I was stupid and said ‘I think you should do that.’

    “So I took the job, even with the meager page rate it came with because I was told it was ‘manna from the Gods’. And it was worth it, although I’ve only colored about fifty pages so far. Maybe there’ll be more pages soon. But he’s Paul Pope, he’s a rock star. He can do whatever he wants, so he can take a hiatus and fly to Japan on his private jet and do something crazy that only Paul Pope does. But I will say this, the coolest thing about that job is that you get to look at his artwork all day. This guy is amazing. You go ‘Wow! What on Earth is this guy doing?’”

    Pope’s work has found a way into influencing Power Out.

“It’s kind of mind-blowing, looking at these panels all day makes you go ‘I’ve got to incorporate this into my work!’ Some of his page layouts started creeping into Power Out. The scenes where Justin goes into the woods for the first time, I decided ‘I’m going to make everything full bleed and have him really immersed in this environment.’

“There’s a panel where Justin’s walking, and it’s a third of a page that’s rectangle and full bleed. I realized as I was coloring Battlin' Boy later, that’s where I got that from. It was a big influence. I’d love to color more pages, and I hope there’s more available.”

Pope is very much a product of his Jim Morrison rock-star image, but one earned by his critically-acclaimed and distinctive style of cartooning. The as-yet published graphic novel has already been optioned by Brad Pitt as a film.

“He’s a guy who’s in a good position, too, because he can pick and choose his project. It’s already been optioned and he’s kind of sitting on it like ‘I’ll get this done whenever and then Brad Pitt can make the movie. In the meantime, I’ll go take a private jet to Thailand for that tantric love conference Iggy Pop told me about,’” Nathan jokes. “I don’t know what rock stars do with their time, but I think of him and say ‘That’s what a rock star in comics is.’”

“It’s difficult to read things online and I’ll come right out and say it: I did not intend for Power Out to be a webcomic,” Nathan admits. “The original idea was for it to be done in print. You have to scroll down to read it and it’s a pain in the butt. It’s going to be so much easier in the print version to digest the whole page.

    “One thing I’m excited about, which you never see online, is seeing double-page spreads all the time. I obsess over double page layouts, maybe even fetishize them. In a way I feel like its what Dean Haspiel does with his page layouts: I mean, they’re immaculate – every line is leading your eye where it needs to go. He obsesses over it and you can tell.

“I feel that way about double-page spreads. I almost always try to do a reveal in that upper-left corner. When you turn the page on a comic, you see everything on both pages for a split-second. You can’t put a naked woman on the right side of the page, and that was a consideration in that graphic sex scene. The last panel on the page is the woman unbuttoning her dress, which is where the tension starts.

    “I read a lot of Alan Moore comics growing up, which were probably my biggest mainstream influence. To me, Watchmen and Killing Joke are what a comic is. I remember The Killing Joke, in particular, had every lower right-hand panel leading to the upper left-hand panel of the next spread. You’ll see them playing with a corpse’s leg and, on the next page, it’s somebody playing with a prawn’s leg. There’s always a connection there, and I it stuck in my head. When Power Out is in print, I feel like the rhythm of the spreads will create a whole new experience for readers familiar with the webcomic.”

    Faced with turning the web version to print, Nathan hasn’t any grand set in stone plans for the format, and is still feeling things out:

“I’m going to print the first one and see how it does, and hopefully I make enough money that I can print the second one,” he says. “What would be awesome is if I can find another publisher who is interested in printing the second half, or the whole story. That would be ideal. I think Jason Lutes did that with his Xeric. It would be awesome to print the whole thing.  But right now, it’s looking like it’ll be 156 pages, and I just couldn’t print it the way I’d ultimately want to print it. It’s going to be ashcan size, and a tiny book, but I think it’s going to look great.”

Located out of the Gowanus studio building that also houses Deep 6 and XOXO studios, Nathan is inspired to give a wink and nod to where Power Out came to life on paper:

“I was going to call [my imprint] Canal Press, because I’m right by the [Gowanus] Canal, and it sounds legitimate,” Nathan reveals. “I love the canal, and there’s something impressive about how big and ugly everything over there is. It’s hideous but very grandiose, and definitely has a majesty to it.”
Despite hanging out within a small community of cartoonists, Schreiber hasn’t lost sight of the ultimate goal with Power Out: to make a comic that goes beyond the clubhouse.

     “I want to make it as easy as possible for people who want to read the story to just read the story. I think, as a cartoonist, you can get obsessed with certain ideas; fundamentally, your job is to communicate a story to an audience, and that should be your primary goal. It’s tough, sometimes, hanging out with a bunch of cartoonists, you can get in the habit of making cartoons for cartoonists. They’re a very good audience and have excellent taste. I want to make something that those guys are excited about. I also want to make a book my aunt can read, or someone who says ‘I read Fun Home and liked it, and am trying to figure out what to read next.’ I want to give them Power Out and say ‘I think you’ll like this.’”

See more of Nathan's work at his home page.