See Magazine talks with JOE SACCO and ADRIAN TOMINE

“See Magazine Interviews: Joe Sacco and Adrian Tomine” / See Magazine / See Magazine Staff / February 18, 2011

According to comics journalist Joe Sacco, every cartoonist probably has a bit of a masochistic streak.

“Artistically, what I do is exhausting, very labour intensive,” says Sacco, who won an American Book Award in 1996 for his comics journalism series, Palestine.

Just glance at almost any given page of Sacco’s art — whether it’s from Palestine, The Fixer (2003) or Footnotes in Gaza (2009) — and you can see the sheer grinding effort staring back at you. The painstaking line work of a torrential rainstorm in Palestine suggests untold hours of wrist-cramping action at the drawing board.

Look at the meticulously ordered and precisely designed panels of Chris Ware in his Acme Novelty Library series. By contrast, there’s a laboured chaos in the work of underground Quebec artist Richard Suicide; his technique in 2007’s My Life as a Foot sometimes seemingly consists of blanketing the page with drawing from one side to the other.

For decades, the roughly standard comics industry practice was for various hands to complete various aspects of the finished book or strip; one person penciled, another inked, etc. The division of labour increased productivity.

However, with the rise of so-called “alternative” or “literary” comics, emphasis has shifted back to the individual artists’ visions. Which means some of the most celebrated artists today are people who insist on making a lot of work for themselves.

“Drawing is generally like digging a ditch,” Sacco says. “I basically know how far I’ll get each day.”

On average, he completes two pages every five days.

Adrian Tomine, whose 2007 Shortcomings was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book, required about a week to complete a page for that project. Of course, he utilized what he admits was perhaps an “overly obsessive drawing style.”

“I think ‘labouring’ is the perfect word,” Tomine says. That’s evident in Tomine’s precise style in Shortcomings — a certain minimalism, or reductionism, that looks deceptively simple on the surface, but suggests great effort put into the final look of every panel — reflected most prominently in the exactness of the characters’ facial and body language.

“It’s hard to break down whether form follows function or the other way around,” Sacco says.

Sacco felt it necessary to provide readers a genuine sense of place.

“There’s that journalistic imperative to draw things as I saw them: cars, buildings, clothing, etc.,” he explains. “Basically, the work calls for accuracy and detail.”

Of course, the ever-present risk for any comics artist is overworking the image, which on the reduced page will be unforgiving of excess.

By contrast, during the drawing of Shortcomings Tomine “was constantly fighting against an undercurrent of stiffness” that usually comes from photo referencing. (For that matter, when he looks back now, the work still looks too detailed.)

The art in Tomine’s brand-new, Scenes from an Impending Marriage, by contrast, has a looser, more “cartoony” look. And it’s not wrong to think the style is less labour intensive or that Tomine’s use of it had only to do with stylistic experimentation.

“The style of Scenes from an Impending Marriage was completely reactionary — almost like an antidote,” he says. This is likely because the project wasn’t originally intended for publication and Tomine felt totally uninhibited, and emancipated in terms of drawing style. He completed one to two pages daily.

“It was a welcome reminder that drawing comics could actually be fun,” he says. “Not just an arduous slog towards a very distant goal.”

It prompts the question of if the time and labour invested is worth it.

The trick, Sacco says, is to choose projects wisely. Not that we would consider simplifying his style for journalistic work. But in answer to the question: “I think the payoff is worth it, yes.”

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