Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Jason Little: Improving Comic Art

Words: Christopher Irving . Pictures: Seth Kushner

    Jason Little dresses in bright colors like a villain from the Adam West Batman TV show; sitting in the dining room of his Kensington, Brooklyn home that he shares with wife Myla Goldberg and their two daughters, he’s decked out in a bright red shirt with green pants and a dark green blazer. He has such a sedate, laid-back personality in contrast with his vivid fashion sense. Perhaps his style is the balance to his mellow demeanor, a way to act out his high energy through his wardrobe?

    The cartoonist behind the Xeric-winning comic book Jack’s Luck Runs Out, as well as the successful Bee online comic strip, Jason is contributing to the new Comedy Central cartoon Ugly Americans while gearing up for the release of Motel Art Improvement Service, the second Bee graphic novel that collects Jason’s web strip. Where the first graphic novel/collection of Bee strips, Shutterbug Follies was more young adult leaning, Motel contains boatloads of sex and adult subject matter.

“I wrote Shutterbug Follies when I was probably twenty-six, and then Motel Art I wrote in my early thirties. My characters don’t age. So, ‘I get older and they stay the same age’,” Jason smiles as he drops the famous line from cult film Dazed and Confused. “Anyway, there’s an increased distance between me and the young people characters, and the older I get, the younger young people seem, and unformed, uncongealed. I started to realize what remains interesting about young people to old people is that explosion of energetic sexuality that we lose the older and older we get. Young people are sexy, so to do something with that seemed to be the imperative I gave myself. I seem to have a dirty streak that is intrinsic to me and I feel like it makes my comics better when I unleash it…

“I enjoy works of art, likes movies and books, that have titillating subject matter, and I also enjoy art that has more intellectual subject matter. There’s art for the mind, and art for the body, and I like the idea of being able to have your cake and eat it too—to have art or literature with an intelligent component but that also has titillation at the same time.”

When Motel Art Service begins, 18 year old hipster girl Bee is getting a start on her cross-country bicycling trip from New York. She doesn’t get far before an accident grounds her at a roadside motel, where she meets housekeeper Cyrus, a talented artist in his mid-twenties who switches out motel room paintings with ones he modifies with his own details.

“In fact, the gimmick of Cyrus taking a banal representational print and then painting transgressive content into that print in the same style so that it blends in seamlessly, is something a colleague of mine was doing (Daupo, with whom I’ve collaborated on some comics),” Jason points out. “That idea definitely came from him.”
There’s a reason why Jason made Cyrus older than the young Bee:

“I think the thing about having young characters is that the younger they are, the fewer experiences they’ve had,” Jason reveals. “It’s harder to convince the reader that they’ve had a complex inner life and that they’ve had lots of different experiences. It’s easier to have an older character who has had a complicated backstory.
Since Bee is, in a sense, a bit of a tabula rasa character like Tintin or Mickey Mouse—we don’t know anything about Tintin’s parents, or where he was born—where they’re a simple thing that the reader can project his or her personality on to. Bee’s a little bit like that. I’m trying to give her more attributes, gradually, so she’s a simple character in contrast to Cyrus, who I wanted to have more inner conflict and backstory.”

[Eero Saarinen, TWA Terminal, Idlewild Airport, 1962.]

    Bee tags along with Cyrus to his new motel job, at a modern high-rise hotel with a rising eye motif.
“I wanted it to feel like an Eero Saarinen building, a little bit,” Jason points out. “He was a Finnish architect; his most famous building is the TWA building at JFK. It’s shaped like a giant bird, and it’s currently unoccupied and decrepit. But it’s a gorgeous building, and I’m not a huge fan of modern architecture, but that one cuts through my defenses.

“I wanted to have this atrium hotel, but I played architect and wanted there to be an organizing principle to the shape of it and ornamentation. It looks like an eye looking up to heaven. I originally thought of hotels as being a voyeuristic space, so the eye has more to do with the voyeuristic aspect of the hotel; the whole religion element is bullshit.

    “It’s about the invasion of private spaces by the people who have the authority to be in those spaces.”

    Because of the adult content in Motel Art, Jason Little hit a few hurdles in getting the graphic novel published, primarily involving the original publisher.

“I originally sold it to Little, Brown and Co. as a young adult book. I remember sitting in the meeting, where I’ve got my agent next to me at a big conference table, and the editor is on the other side, and her boss was next to her. I remember saying ‘You’ve read the treatment I gave you. You realize there’s sex in it? This is a young adult imprint, so I want to be clear that you’re signing off on that?’

     “They said ‘Yeah, no problem, we’ll market it as 'mature' young adult.’

   “I said ‘Okay, great, let’s do it!’”

    There was only so much cartooning to be done on Jason’s end, though, as his new life as a father kept him away from the drawing board more, and taught him the importance of a long workday.

    “’Then, my first daughter was born, then my second daughter was born three years after that. The whole process started to drag. My wife and I had this parenting paradigm that was very egalitarian, where we would split the working day in half, so one has creative time while the other takes care of the kids. I was only getting about six hours of studio time a day, tops. This worked fine for Myla, because as a writer, she can only really write for six hours before she hits a mental wall. It’s much more intense brainwork, where with cartoonists it’s much more ‘craft’ time.

    “So, the book really dragged, and I got extension after extension from the publisher, and I was getting demoralized by it. I couldn’t figure why it was taking so god damn long to finish the book. My closest peers are by and large ‘alternative’ cartoonists who work some sort of day job or another and scrape out some drawing time at night and on the weekends. So I had little in the way of example for how to finish a 200 page graphic novel on schedule and before spending away the advance money. It never occurred to me that you can’t finish a graphic novel like this one on time in six hours a day, so by the time I finished it and turned it in, that whole promise of ‘Yeah, we’re fine with the sex’ had been forgotten by the publisher.

    “I got an email back from my editor which basically was a laundry list of all the naughtiness in this book, asking me to remove all of it. It was demoralizing. I had genuinely forgotten that conference table conversation, because so much time had passed and I was addled by the experience. So we pulled the plug on the contract to Little Brown, me and my agent.”

    It was a hard lesson in directing a graphic novel for Jason, as he was the victim of sexual taboos in YA graphic novels. He notes that the adult content of Bee isn’t really that different from a YA prose book:

“According to people I’ve spoken to who know about these things, there is tons of sex in YA prose novels, but the written word is an abstracting tool for sex. But when it’s drawn, it instantly becomes vivid, and it freaks people out. John Waters, after he did Serial Mom, vowed ‘I’m never going to do another PG-13 movie again.’ So that’s the kind of attitude I’m taking.”

With a more determined direction for his work, Jason sold Motel Art to Dark Horse Comics, a more fitting home with a better appreciation of the graphic novel’s form and content.

“They instantly got it,” he says of his new publisher. “They had no problems with any ambiguities surrounding age group marketing. They were like ‘It’s comics. It’s for people who like comics!’ That’s been a fantastic relief.”

[From Evidence by Luc Sante, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1992.]

    Voyuerism is the fuel that moves the characters through Motel Art, as Bee and Cyrus impose into the lives of the random and sometimes interconnected denizens of the hotel. It’s also a strong theme in the first Bee graphic novel, Shutterbug Follies, where Bee is working as a photo processing technician when she encounters a Russian photographer who displays apparently staged “crime scene photos” which, in reality, are tied into real hits from the Russian mob. Once a photo processor himself, Jason was inspired by the “voyeuristic eye” angle, while the Russian photographer, Oleg Katchatorian, was a sum of a few inspirations:

    “Oleg Katachatorian came more from looking at old crime scene photographs, like Weegee photos. There’s a book by Luc Sante called Evidence, which is really gruesome pictures of dead bodies from the ‘30s. I absorbed that stuff and decided that there was a good villain character in there.

“He’s the sort of conceptual artist where he’s strong on concept but really short on aesthetics. For me, art that motivates me is strong in both categories. I think I got his name from this Russian artist that Myla, my wife, encountered once – his name was Oleg Kulick. He's a conceptual artist. His thing was that he came to New York from Moscow as a dog, and the minute he came off the plane he was in character as a mad dog. So, he was walked to the gallery on a leash, and put in a cage. He lived in the cage naked, as a dog, for the entire run of his exhibit there. That’s long on concept.

“Myla went to check out the show, and she didn’t go in the cage the first time. Some people would get in the cage, and respond in character, as a wild dog. So, she decided to come back a second time... but this time she brought a ball. She went in, and was the only one there who was engaging him and trying to reach the dog personality. They played with the ball for a while, her in the cage with the naked Russian guy. And then he squatted in the corner and took a crap.

    “So, I guess he felt comfortable with her,” Jason laughs. “She was proud.”

[Tim Hawkinson's Penitent (1994) is made out of rawhide, and contains motors and pumps that make the sculpture whistle, as though for a dog.]

“In terms of art we see in galleries, the new work I really like these conceptual artists Tim Hawkinson and Tom Friedman,” Jason says. “Hawkinson is really an artist/engineer. He makes objects and machines using all sorts of different media that do a kind of performance for the viewer to see.

“The old artwork that I’m most excited about now is renaissance painting, right at the transition between the medieval period and renaissance period, where drawing in perspective is starting to be figured out. It’s where those medieval paintings that had naively rendered buildings crystallize and all the planes and geometry start to make sense. It’s neat.”

Does all of the talk of engineering and form give Jason Little a structuralist leanings?

[The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius, 1486, Carlo Crivelli.]

“I’m very interested in structure,” Jason admits. “There are some cartoonists for whom character is their main motivator, and they want to make characters that are real. The nuts and bolts of comics is what gets me excited.”

Bee has been the vehicle with which Jason has evolved, not just visually, but in his much-loved sense of structure. While several webcomics cartoonists might embrace the amount of site visits and other stats, and celebrate the instant feedback from their readership, Jason’s more focused on the process of creating a graphic novel in weekly installments on www.beecomix.com.

“There are cartoonists who keep track of their web stats,” Jason says. “I’ve never learned how to read the stats for meaning. I would get reader mail and feedback, so I know there are readers who are reading the strips online…

“It’s useful to have short-term deadlines to make sure the work gets done in a timely fashion. The weekly deadline is good. The whole Bee book idea is very derived from Tintin and the whole Tintin structure came from weekly material. Those Tintin pages were originally in a weekly newspaper.”

After finishing Shutterbug and Motel Art, Jason is more laser focused on creating graphic novels as just that: graphic novels, possibly changing his pacing in the process. After proving to himself that he can do a graphic novel based on a beloved format, he’s now aiming towards breaking that format and (maybe) inventing a few new ones.

    “It clings too closely to the original inspiration to the strip, and I feel that I’ve gotten as much out of my period of Hergé worship as I'm going to get,” Jason admits. “For me to retain interest in this Bee character, I need to pile on different influences and approaches and let go of some of the rules I set for myself.

    “I’d said Bee is going to be flat coloring without any rendering, not much in the way of solid blacks, no shading, it’s going to be four tiers per page (like Tintin), but split into a spread when put into a book. It’s going to have that weekly strip rhythm where there’s a cliffhanger or gag at the end of each episode. I’m feeling that I’m chafing against that, and am more interested in variety and experimentation, and possibilities of bringing in other drawing media. I just want to open it up every way that I can.”

    Jason’s background in independent comics thrives on experimentation, yet his approach was well planned on both Bee graphic novels. Recently, it seems, Jason has reconciled his experimental roots with his structuralist leanings:

“For both books I did a treatment where it was just plot, but with very little dialogue in it. Then I workshopped that with my friends, and would do a draft and then pass it to friends to read. Then I would get comments back from them, and would have an experiment/control situation: if they told me wildly different things, then I would take it with a grain of salt, but if they would tell me ‘This character isn't working,’ then I would take that piece of advice.

    “I didn’t workshop the first book that much, and came out of it feeling like I really needed to work on my writing. I attacked that and went through eight drafts on the treatment for Motel Art. I feel like that was as close to writing grad school as I was able to get, for me. From that, I went right into layouts and wrote the dialogue as I drew the layouts. I’m drifting away from that; I feel like, as I age, I need all the structure I can get, so I’m writing scripts now.

    “I come from an ‘alternative’ comics background, and the very deliberate separation of the work into these stages is often viewed by ‘my people’ as being an artifact of the assembly line, and that you don’t need to do all those steps. I’m finding that I need all the organizational help I can get.

    “I steered clear of scripts before that, because I felt it was too mainstream of a mentality, but it wasn’t.”

    Jason’s breakthrough comic book was the Xeric-winning Jack’s Luck Runs Out in 1998, but had things been different, he might have debuted sooner.

“The first thing that was supposed to be published was a single issue of a comic by Fantagraphics, that never came out,” Jason reveals. “I drew a 24-page comic called Deadly Swingers, issue one of a projected five, which I drew in its entirety and then gave Fantagraphics, around ’96. Fantagraphics solicited Diamond, and the orders were low. Fantagraphics called me up and said ‘Orders are really low, so we’re going to print your first issue. You’re on your own after that, because we’re not going to print the second issue.’

    “In a fantastic display of passive-aggressive self-destruction, I said ‘Forget it, then. I don’t want the first issue to come out if there’s not going to be a second issue.’ Which was stupid of me, in a big way. I should’ve had them do the first issue and then found a new publisher. Young people can be stupid, and I was very stupid. I wasn’t able to think clearly and say ‘I’ll do the first issue and then regroup and find a new publisher.’ I totally derailed the whole project.”

    Jason pulls a stack of original art pages and copies from a flat file in the corner of his dining room, and brings them over. The artwork is much more primitive than even his work on Jack, giving off what he considers a “student-y” look. It opens with a character (later shanghaied as Huey in Shutterbug Follies) photographing a woman changing, another instance of the voyeuristic theme that propels through most of his projects.

“This guy is a lonely photographer, a lonely voyeur, and he’s shy,” Jason says of the story mothballed for over a decade. “Then he meets this hot black girl with bleached blonde hair, and she takes a shine to him. She finds his shyness cute somehow. Simultaneously there’s an aging hippie figure, who’s an Allen Ginsburg character, and he’s got this herbal drug that these mobsters want control over.

    “You’ve got the lonely voyeur, hot girl, hippie guru, and the bad guys. It’s a chase hi-jinx farce. The bad guys kidnap the hippie guy. I did this on Unishade, and I have the old boards, and they’re a total mess. That stuff is as unarchival as it could possibly be. This is the best copy of that page.”

    With Fantagraphics no longer an option, Little attempted to expand the issues into a graphic novel, at a time when computer production was still a relatively new thing in comics.

    “Next I was going to start this whole story over again as a graphic novel, and then I made some really uninformed process decisions,” he admits. “I started using computer lettering, and lettered almost the whole thing on the computer. I was thinking like Eisner and Kurtzman, I would letter the boards first and then pencil. But then I lost track of what images I wanted to be in each panel. I had some lapse of organizational vision, and lost the story. The story became too big for my little brain. It was a classic young and stupid mistake.”

    When it came time to Jack’s Luck Runs Out, a Vegas style noir drawn in what he considers “a cold and diagrammatic fashion”, that follows the dangerous love triangle between gambler Jack, a bar owner (King), and a showgirl (Queen). Little used flat colors and decorative tricks culled from playing cards, and used playing card faces to illustrate the main characters. The end result is a beautiful and eerie comic book, with stiff characters wearing mask-like faces, running through a crime tale rife with blood, sex, and lots of green.

[Devin Clark's "Ugly Americans"]

    With Motel Art Improvement Service in the can and ready to be printed, Jason is focusing on several more upcoming projects, while working an animation job on a new Comedy Central series. Ugly Americans just debuted less than a month ago, and follows the adventures (or misadventures) of a social worker for monsters

“I contributed to boards and animatics of about half of the first season episodes,” Jason says. “Now I’m doing what they call the backplate illustrations, in collaboration with R. Sikoryak.”

    Jason’s work on Ugly Americans involves more than traditional storyboarding, however, as the work is primed for animation in the computer program Flash.

“Storyboard is not an adequate description [for what I do],” Jason points out. “Aaron Augenblick, the animation director, combines boards and animatic into one process. We took very simple thumbnails director Devin Clark made, and then redrew those right into Flash, and then embellished the living shit out of them. We put ‘eyeball pops’ in, like Will Elder working over a Harvey Kurtzman layout.

    “That was full time for two months, and then I came out the other side with new skills and went back to comics.”

    One comic book project that Jason is gearing up is Gimmick Illustrated, a comic book in a square format that involves a different drawing style than we’re used to seeing from him. The first issue, which is completed, is titled Vlak, and follows a derby-donning traveller’s travails on a train ride. Little is open-minded to a format change for Gimmick, if absolutely necessary.

“I like the idea of a comic book series, Jason elaborates. “Because I like the format of a periodical that’s all me, that comes out more often than a graphic novel so that readers have little things they can buy and read to keep up with my work. I can stay in touch with them more consistently that way. The title Gimmick Illustrated is specifically my experimental venue. I may find that publishers are more interested in graphic novels now, so I may repackage the story this issue contains—’Vlak’—as a graphic novel.”

Where Bee was Little’s homage to the style of Hergé’s Tintin, Vlak is his nod and wink to the classic Beatles animated movie Yellow Submarine, designed by the legendary Heinz Edelmann.

“That’s my ‘historical’ favorite movie since I was a little kid,” he says of Submarine. “It used to be on TV once a year in the early seventies. I’m interested in the Beatles, and in cartoons, and so the confluence of Beatles and cartoons in one package is really something. It was a very early formative influence, as Tintin was. I read Tintin very heavily when I was a kid; they were the first comics I read. I had never really expressed the influence of Yellow Submarine, so I constructed a place to do so.

“The Bee strips are a very deliberate processing of Tintin and then, in the middle of Motel Art, I started to feel really confined by it, and felt that I needed to do something different to bust out. Motel Art was all about a page where all the panels were compressed into a grid with no white space on the page. It was all about color and the Hergé mode.

I wanted to do something that had breathing space, and used a simpler, more rubbery and more flat drawing style, like Heinz Edelmann in Yellow Submarine. I asked ‘What kind of story can I use that for?’ and thought about Terry Gilliam and his processing of Kafka's tone and atmosphere. I plunged in. It's a more un-fussy approach to comics making that’s in real contrast to the fastidious and deliberate mode that Bee’s drawn in.”

    Aside from the trippy stylization, Little shifts the octagonal panels around a black page, so that the reading experience is mostly one of left to right. He even works with panel sizes in a subtle way.

    “I had in mind this swelling action where important panels would be big panels, but not big next to teeny-weenie panels, they would swell into the big moments,” Jason points out. “I’m not sure if it’s even really all that evident in the work, but I like the way it turned out.”

    As for the rest of Jason Little’s future output? They’re in the form of proposals with several of his friends and collaborators.

“There’s a bouquet of proposals,” he reveals. “There’s a children’s book—and I know I was just saying I’m not cut out for children’s books, but it's okay because this is being written by Nick Bertozzi. He’s doing layouts for it, too. I am his technician. He’s the idea guy, and he needed me to do some beautiful and mechanical rendering.

    “Then there’s a horror graphic novel about urban planning. That’s written by Jon Lewis. That’s another proposal.

    “Then there’s a novel written in the late ‘30s that I’ve acquired an option on. That’ll be black and white. You know The City of Glass graphic novel by Karasik and Mazzucchelli? That’s by far the most successful novel-to-comics adaptation I’ve seen, and I want to try to tap into the same juice that made that work.

    “Then there’s a dystopic sci-fi piece that I’m working out with Daupo. That’s a situation where he’s plotting and I’m doing layouts, and then we have a third collaborator in Josh Tyree, who’s doing the script.

    “And then I have a backlog of about four original graphic novel ideas, one of which is a new ‘Bee’ book.”

    The variety of content and subject matter drives home the main point of Jason Little’s philosophy as a cartoonist, one he expands upon:

“I feel like if I’m not trying something new, I’m not growing as an artist. I need that to keep myself stimulated. That’s the definition of whether I’m doing well, in life: Am I coming up with new ideas, and are they different from the old ideas?”

Lear more about Jason Little at beecomix.com.