I first became familiar with Joe Ollmann’s work while researching comic-book adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories and poems. In a volume of Eureka Publications’ Graphic Classics series, one devoted to Poe, I discovered a wonderful visual translation of “The Premature Burial” illustrated by Ollmann and adapted by Tom Pomplun. I appreciated his paneling as a reflection of the story’s content and his handling of the overall mise-en-page. I included his and Pomplun’s work in an essay on recent Poe adaptations that I eventually published in the scholarly journal, Poe Studies/Dark Romanticism, and using samples of Joe’s art as the first illustrations I referenced in the piece. Perhaps it was appropriate that my introduction to Joe was filtered through the master of the macabre, for there is indeed something dark about his comics. His stories are not “dark” in the classic gothic literary sense, although you will find a good number of hidden (psychological) recesses, unexplained (sociological) phenomena, and ambiguous (behavioral) settings. In other words, Joe’s narratives are all about the human world as it exists and as we all experience it, in all of its uncertain, problematic, and painful glory. As Joe reveals in the interview that follows, his daughter, Elizabeth, sums up her father’s style this way: there’s sadness, jadedness, hatred, and ultimately no resolution. While she may be one of Joe’s harshest — albeit, most loving — critics, Elizabeth may actually have her finger on something. There is a harshness to Joe’s tone, but it’s recognizable and one with which we’re all familiar. There is equivocation with his endings, but that kind of ambiguity both resists pat answers and invites readers to engage more directly with his narratives. All of this is what floored me when I read his most recent collection, Happy Stories about Well-Adjusted People (Conundrum Press): Joe’s unabashed realism and his mastery of the short-story form. Indeed, Happy Stories was one of my “Top 10” comics of 2014. And after reading that book last fall, I just had to interview its author for The Comics Alternative.
The following was conducted via email between November 2014 and February 2015, with the back-and-forth quality of our interaction turning out to be more of a friendly conversation than a generic or typical interview. I hope that in reading the results you’ll sense the fun — personal as well as intellectual — that I experienced.
Derek Royal: All but two of the stories in your latest book are from previous works. Do you consider Happy Stories about Well-Adjusted People to be something of a “greatest hits” collection, or maybe even a way of revisiting your career up to this point?
Joe Ollmann: I guess it’s definitely a greatest hits kind of thing with two all-new stories thrown in so it’s not a complete rip-off. The thing with the two books these stories come from, Chewing on Tinfoil and This Will All End in Tears, they were really well-reviewed and Tears won the Doug Wright Award, but I don’t think many people ever saw them. So Andy Brown at Conundrum Press bought the rights from my old publisher, and we put the book together. Hopefully it will reach a few new people. It has really forced me to revisit my career, and old work as well.
DR: In going back and looking again at the older comics, what kind of realizations — or even discoveries — have there been?
JO: I was surprised that I still liked a lot of these stories. There’s a depth of feeling and sincerity in them and a lack of cynicism that feels like my younger, less-jaded self in them. I was writing and drawing these at a very emotionally amplified time in my life: I was in the middle of a divorce, I was depressed and drinking a lot, and my life was kind of awash in drama and feeling. Maybe it’s rare to have that level of emotion in the middle of your life like that, the almost teenage levels of angst and that amplified feeling translated to everything: how I saw the world, how I reacted to art and music, and, alternately, how I created art, I guess. Anyway, for me, it felt like a productive, genuine translation of the turmoil in my life into these stories of other people. If that doesn’t sound too pretentious. Also, my lettering and artwork were atrocious. Probably the boozing did not help that.
DR: Yeah, in your introductory piece for Happy Stories, you reference this dark period of your life. And there’s that telling panel with you passed out drunk on top of a gravestone. Were the stories that didn’t make it into the new book — which is actually most of Chewing on Tinfoil — too affected by your personal turmoil at the time, or did you decide to leave them out for other reasons?
JO: No, there were no stories that were actually personal in those books. I let Andy Brown — who is a great editor and has worked with a lot of the cartoonists he publishes, advising their books into shape in the background — decide what stories should stay and go. So it wasn’t a case of my own problems introduced to the page being too much to revisit, but rather, intense states of emotion affecting my output. I’m not saying that old bullshit of only depressed artists make great art. But intense states of emotion, positive or negative, certainly can alter your vision, and sometimes for the better. I visited some of my own autobiographical stuff in the semi-autobiographical book, Mid-Life. Which also hid behind a lot of fake stuff.
DR: There are some stories in your earlier books that I can see not being collected in Happy Stories. For example, “God” and “Death Wears Inexpensive Loafers” are more on the fantastical side, not the same kind of realistic or “slice of life” stories in the new work. But there are some pieces in Chewing on Tinfoil, such as “Like Something Akin to the Sistine Chapel, but with Cows…” and “Fish Story,” that have that same stark, poignant feeling found throughout all of Happy Stories. You mention that you let your editor include what was most appropriate, but do you think those stories could have fit in just as well?
JO: Yeah, those two stories you mention, “God” and “Death Wears Inexpensive Loafers” definitely do not fit with the other stories which are kind of kitchen sink dramas. I guess we tried to put together something cohesive thematically. I think Andy felt that the stories like “Like Something Akin to the Sistine Chapel, but with Cows…” and “Fish Story” were maybe too earnest or something. Or maybe I did, I can’t remember. I actually like those stories, but I guess something had to be cut. It can’t be a “best of” if you include everything. Or it would be the most overconfident and egomaniacal “best of” ever.
DR: You mentioned a moment ago the semi-autobiographical Mid-Life — which I want to get back to later — but what about any autobiographical links in your short stories? How much is there? And do you think any elements or grounding from your own life tend to make your stories more earnest, giving them a rougher or more dramatic edge?
JO: There’s nothing overtly autobiographical in there, really. I mean, I can relate to the self-loathing that a lot of my characters possess, and you always add incidental details, slips of conversation, autobio details into a story. Every writer does that to some extent. I just think that maybe what makes a good writer is, ultimately, empathy. I mean, if you’re trying to write about the human condition, and human conditions that are not your own, the only way to do that is to be able to relate to and sympathize with the people you write about. I mean, the world breaks my heart as much as it completely enrages me, and I try and get that down a bit, I hope, and to do it without being all precious and humorless. (I think that giving your audience credit enough to leaven dark material with humor is a thing that comes with maturity. I wrote a lot of unrelenting po-faced sad crap in my younger days, and it falls flat without humor. If there’s no humor, there’s no humanity, I think. Wow, digression!)
I can relate to all of my characters, I guess. I’m not an angry, overweight woman, but I understand that self-loathing and rage, I know what it’s like to be a drunk (I don’t drink at all anymore), I know what it’s like to be a young person losing deeply held faith. Even things I can’t relate to directly, I can empathize with, and hopefully, that helps render them honestly. There’s always the question of misappropriation of voice, and I always try and be respectful if I’m writing of a gender or race other than my own. I think that keeps you on a good path, being respectful of your representations as well.
DR: Your comments on empathy really make sense, and I think it comes out strongly in about all of your stories. There are many, many examples of graphic short stories, or short stories in comics form, but not all of them have the impact of what we typically think of as a short story: concise pointedness, thematic coherence, character depth and development, and the effectively compact treatment of its subject matter. Reading your short comics, though, I get the same kind of feeling as reading the prose of John Cheever, Alice Munro, and Raymond Carver. Have prose writers, particularly masters of short fiction, influenced the way you tell stories?
JO: I read widely and wildly as a young man. I had to educate myself as I got married, when I was 17, and my university was a box factory. So I read everything in an attempt to “pull myself up out of the morass of drudge-labor.” It was completely class-conscious snobbery on my part, ironically, since I was also a fervent Marxist at the same time. (What a messed up kid!) It was exactly that David Copperfield/Dickens sobbing about “doing work he was unfit for” that drove me to read so much and try and educate myself.
So I’ve read some of those great short story writers you mention, but I’ve read a lot of trash as well. Everything you read leaves its scars upon you, for good and for ill. The biggest influences in the past, in terms of what I’ve read, would be the social realists, like the Americans Upton Sinclair and Frank Norris, and also Emile Zola. These were the guys, along with Orwell and Jack London and, later for me, John Dos Passos and Gissing, who were doing what I longed to do, though I’ve never really attempted that kind of work. Like it affected me, but indirectly. But I haven’t consciously studied the short-story form. If anything, Saki, Guy de Maupassant, O. Henry, and Rod Serling would be my biggest study as a youth. Every short story I ever wrote as a teen had an “amazing” shock ending. At some point, I gave up on that, and I think the purposeful ambiguity of my all my endings today is a reaction to that.
DR: One of the things that strikes me most about your stories is the ending. There’s rarely any neat or “satisfying” resolution, and the narratives usually stop abruptly without what most people would call (and may prefer as) “closure.” It’s like we’re left with characters in the middle of things, sometimes at critical points. But these kind of endings are springboards for contemplation and quandary, pregnant moments that really give the preceding events their meaning. I’m thinking of Dennis answering the phone in “Hanging Over,” Amy turning off her light in “They Filmed a Movie Here Once,” Gary driving off at the end of “Shut Your Piehole, Johnny Pinetop,” Marion putting her fish in bleach in “Fish Story,” or the girls calling out to their father in “C.O.P.S.” (although there are many other examples I could list). Would you describe this as part of a conscious style, or is it a more instinctive way you tell your stories?
JO: Well, there’s rarely a satisfying, neat conclusion in life, right? So I guess I attempt to bring realism by emulating that vagueness. I also try and not be over dramatic and depressing in the endings and try and set things up so there is a possibility of a happy conclusion; that it looks bleak, but there’s a chance it doesn’t have to go horribly wrong. All of this is less conscious and more instinctive, I think. I don’t overtly plot things out. They come out as I ruminate over them in my head for long periods of time before I start writing. I’m more idiot than savant, but I work instinctively.
Here is a strip done by my daughter, Elizabeth, when she was a teenager as a throw away joke that I kept, and it is a pretty good description of every story I have ever done:
(I said none of these stories is autobio, but you remind me that “C.O.P.S.” is actually straight-up autobio. That was taken from an informal journal and happened exactly as I wrote it down. crazy!)
DR: Do you feel that your tone — ambiguous, contemplative, and at times even brooding — has affected your reception and the kind of readers, and outlets, for your comics?
JO: I don’t know what affects my reception, and lately, I try to not think about it. Thinking about your reception can be deadly to your work. It’s impossible not to think about it, but I try and remain aware and stop myself from adjusting and changing my work to make it more palatable. Writing in that way can only make shitty, insincere work that reeks of desperation and trying to please. I see people doing that kind of stuff, like market-researchy kind of “This is popular, so I’ll do a comic about this,” and it always feels obvious and false. I suspect with me, it’s not the tone of the stories so much that affect my reception, but my ugly artwork. If people could look past my artistic limitations and read my stuff, they might like it. I suspect this, as I say, but who knows? I’ve given up trying to think about it and getting back to a place where I just do whatever comics I want because they amuse me, and hopefully, good work will come out of that. If not, I’m still amusing myself, and in the comics world I’ve realized that for the vast majority of participants, there is probably a very small audience beyond yourself, anyway.
DR: You just mentioned your “ugly artwork.” Has there been criticism that your drawing style doesn’t measure up?
JO: Oh, I’m self-conscious, or maybe just aware of my limitations. I concentrate on the fact that your limitations become your style. But yeah, in almost every review — and I shouldn’t complain, I have been very lucky in my reviews, people have responded well to my work — but in almost every review, they mention my grotesque, scratchy, claustrophobic, crowded artwork and sometimes that my ugly artwork grows on them. Like a fungus, I guess. I listen to these criticisms — as you get older, you can accept constructive criticism more easily and even gratefully — and I really struggle to draw better. I redraw panels a lot more these days at every step of the way. I attempt to give breathing room in my panels without consciously changing my style. I don’t know how much it changes for the better, though Seth said to me that my book, Science Fiction, was, in his opinion, my best-drawn book ever. That meant a lot coming from someone whose work I admire so much. One thing artwork-wise I really concentrate on is improving my lettering. There is no excuse for illegibility; that’s just laziness. I hope I’ve improved that, at least.
DR: I can’t help but think here of other comics artists whose style has also been criticized as unattractive, in one way or another. Peter Bagge and Roberta Gregory have been accused of frenetic and exaggerated art, but look at the impact of their work and the significance of what they do. And Douglas Wolk in his book Reading Comics even argues the aesthetics of an “ugly” style. Do think that those limitations you are accused of having — the scratchiness of the line work, the grotesque figures, and the crowded panels — are characteristic of many indie or alternative comics? Isn’t the lack of polish or prettiness part of the message?
JO: I think Peter Bagge and Roberta Gregory both have a style that, while it may appear “ugly,” it is still polished and highly stylized. This is especially the case with Bagge, who I think is one of the great visual stylists in comics. With me, it is a case of the physical limitations of my draftsmanship affects people’s reactions. I know there are some cartoonists whom I have avoided reading because the visual style of their work was unappealing to me, and often, after putting aside prejudices and actually reading them, I came to like the work as a whole. It’s a subtle matter of taste, I guess. Sometimes, deceptively simple, primitive artwork can be exquisitely beautiful, while technically accomplished, masterful drawing can come off as cold and completely un-engaging. I’m thinking of a lot of CGI animation projects that are technically adept and completely lifeless and shitty, and you wonder why they bothered doing all that work with no investment in the characterization. It’s the intrinsic nature of comics, the combination of image and words working together, that can make ugly art succeed in conjunction with the appropriate writing.
DR: You mentioned a moment ago that Seth liked the art in your book, Science Fiction. And for Happy Stories, he writes a substantial back-cover blurb, calling you “criminally under-appreciated” but yet “one of our medium’s great writers.” I can see the connection between the kind of comics the two of you create, but I also know that both of you are Canadian. How close is the Canadian comics scene?
JO: I guess the Canadian comics scene is as close as comics scenes are everywhere, in my experience. Cartoonists are often solitary creatures, but they enjoy each others’ company when they actually get together. When I lived in Montreal for thirteen years, I was lucky enough to meet and befriend a lot of great cartoonists, both French and English. (I would often be starstruck sighting Julie Doucet around town at events.) It’s an incredibly vibrant hotbed of cartooning, that city, and I miss that. Where I live now, my old pal Dave Collier lives nearby, but we are both kind of hermitty and rarely see each other. I know a lot of great cartoonists in Toronto, which is only a half hour away from me, and I get invites from them and from Annie Koyama to come out and draw with them…and I should! It would be fun. I’m not as much anti-social as I am stupidly workaholic, something I mean to change for the better in the future; less work and more socializing with cartoonists. I see people at comic conventions, especially at TCAF, where I tend to connect with comics people I don’t see again until the next TCAF. A lot of conversations end with me promising to get together. I’ll probably regret this stuff on my deathbed, that I didn’t meet up with people I liked, but instead drew comics in my basement all day and night by myself that ultimately very few people cared about. Then, my death rattle… eeeyuuuuuuhhhhghhh…
DR: I ask about the Canadian scene because some of my first (and favorite) non-mainstream comics were those from Seth and Chester Brown. I remember being struck by how they, along with Joe Matt — not a Canadian, but living there for a number of years — used to draw the three of them hanging out together, discussing comics, and just generally shooting the bull. I know that that is a unique relationship the three of them have, but it gave me the impression (albeit inaccurate) that things may be closer, chummier, with Canadian cartoonists. And hey, you’re pals with Collier…another one of my early favorites!
JO: Canadian cartoonists, like most cartoonists I’ve met in other countries, are all pretty friendly, even the well-known ones. I like to talk to other cartoonists and publishers because you can talk about all that comics bullshit, and they understand. They’re also pretty supportive with technical questions and questions about money/contract stuff. If you want to answer a lot of correspondence, ask a question about pens or markers or Bristol board on Twitter or Facebook. You will get support, holy shit!
DR: You acknowledge Seth in some of your books, even saying in Mid-Life that he “sets the standard and shows the way.” Is he a big influence on your own art and storytelling?
JO: I think the world of Seth. It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken is still one of my top ten all-time favorite comics. But I enjoy everything he has created. I love the beautiful melancholy of his stuff. I really admire his turn of a phrase, I think his writing is overlooked because of his stunning illustrative style. I love his commitment to old cartoonists, and the design of the Complete Peanuts. (That series is the fulfillment of my childhood dream, to have all the run of Charlie Brown in matching volumes!) Along with Brad McKay, he brought Doug Wright, one of my childhood heroes, back into print and started an award in his honor. I appreciate the guy’s work, and I like him as a human. He’s always been very supportive and kind, and that meant a lot to me. He’s a completely sincere person and a gentleman. I saw the new documentary Luc Chamberland did about Seth, and I was amazed by all the other stuff he does. Aside from the stuff people know about the design and comics, and even aside from building an entire fictional city out of cardboard, he makes puppet theaters and creates puppet shows, and he designs parade floats. It was an inspiring movie. I talked to Seth and Tanya, his wife, after the film screening and told them I’d fallen in love with Seth all over again. It was typical me, gushing over a cartoonist I love. But they took it well.
DR: You’ve done a bit of your own world-building in your short-story comics, and it feels as if all the characters in Happy Stories inhabit the same realm…if not geographical, then emotional. But in Mid-Life, you attempt something quite different, where you do flesh out a larger or more sustained narrative world. Outside of any autobiographical issues, what were some of the challenges you faced writing in a longer form?
JO: I always felt that my characters occupied some vague post-industrial city, probably in Canada, not for nationalistic reasons, but just writing what you know. Mid-Life was definitely set in Montreal, though this was only indicated by a smattering of French signs, really. I can’t remember what the specific problems of writing a full-length book were, but my main fear was that unlike a short-story collection, where each piece can succeed or fail on its own, if a part of a full-length fails, basically the book fails. That was scary. But that book was clearly outlined in my mind from the beginning. The autobio parts were clear, and my daughter making fun of me for having a crush on the kid’s performer her little brother was listening to gave me the fictional part of the story that balanced the autobio stuff. That flash of inspiration from her gave the whole book to me, and it wrote itself from there.
DR: Did you find the autobiographical strands a creative prompt or more of a potential stumbling block?
JO: Well, the autobiography stuff is already written, so you don’t have to invent it. The only stumbling block is how much of your personal life you want to reveal. I’m an open book. I feel like a lot of stuff is just universal to all humans, so why keep things secret? That’s why I put that quote at the front of Mid-Life from Terence: “I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” That seems very true to me as an adult. I find I don’t shock easily about much of the human condition, and I don’t think other people who are worth a damn do, either.
I ran the script of that book by the other people involved in it, my family, and they said it was fine with them, so I went ahead with it. Again, half of that book, the affair stuff, is pure fiction, and even the non-fiction stuff is fictionalized. So I’d say it was a creative prompt more than a stumbling block, pre-existent story lines that you could add to or subtract.
DR: One of the big differences between Mid-Life and your shorter comics is that in the graphic novel you’re not utilizing just one narrator or focalizer, but two: John (the more autobiographical) and Sherry. What were your experiences in juggling those two voices?
JO: Doing two distinct narrators in Mid-Life and not indicating who was who with a font change or anything was what I wanted to do. I guess it was a bit tricky. I know I really worked at it, but I can’t remember now. I guess it’s just subtle differences in the voice, though, when I think about it, they were actually pretty similar. That’s why they got along. I really don’t remember! I just know I was worried that people would be confused who was narrating, but they weren’t, and it was a success I bungled into, probably.
DR: I never got mixed up as to who was narrating at any particular time, but the fact that you had two narrators did get me off balance at first. After your note to the reader where you reference the book as semi-autobiographical — although nonetheless a work of fiction — I was a little surprised that you chose to speak in the voice of someone who is obviously not you, a female singer and children’s entertainer. Did you bring her perspective into your narrative so as to distance yourself, and your own life experiences, from the story you were trying to tell?
JO: Well, I think if you’re narrating first-person in any story and that character is not your experience, or your sex, or your race, well, you owe it to that character and that group to get that voice as correct and honest as you possibly can. With the female narrator, as I’ve done with all my female narrators, I just try to bring, as best as I can from an outsider’s perspective, the most honest and least caricatured voice of that character’s experience. I’m not a woman, but I’m a dad of two daughters, and I grew up in a house full of sisters, and I’ve always worked with a lot of women. If it’s possible for a dude to be a feminist, I feel like I am one, so writing from a woman’s perspective — while not really knowing it — I feel like I can take a try at it. And I really think — and I keep coming back to this in interviews lately, talking about this latest compilation in response to questions about veracity of character’s voices — I really feel like empathy for someone outside your experience might be key to writing a character convincingly. Which is not to say that I’m some kind of bodhisattva of human compassion or something. I guess I’m just saying I strive to recognize the truth of someone else’s experience. Who knows if you pull it off or not?
DR: What about the experiences you write about in Science Fiction? Did you find it a challenge to write from the perspective of Mark, a man-of-science-turned-UFO-abduction-believer? Or even from the perspective of Sue, the girlfriend who has to deal with his sudden transformation?
JO: Well, I’ve never had any kind of supernatural experience in my life, though I’ve always wanted one, so I was not writing from experience. I was a very religious kid, and as I started losing my faith, it was really traumatic, and I would seek out supernatural experiences to counteract my doubts. I mean, I did scary stuff on purpose, walking out in the woods alone at night, going out into the barn at night, anywhere that frightened me, almost challenging a ghost or something to appear. But nothing…
For the characters in Science Fiction, I could easily relate to the doubt parts; writing about belief was more of a challenge. I guess what was easy about writing the character Mark, who believes in UFOs, was that he was formerly a skeptic, so it was just a case of how would I react if everything I believed in, or rather, didn’t believe in, was shown to be wrong by concrete proof, and I just went from there. That is all that book is about: faith and doubt and trust. Or it’s just a long illustrated argument.
DR: It’s interesting that you used the words “long illustrated argument” to describe Science Fiction. I notice that the way you narrate the story is from a detached, third-person perspective. This is a marked difference from your narrative approach in Mid-Life and the first-person. It strikes me as almost analytical, like you’re investigating a phenomenon.
JO: I always rely heavily on a narrator in my stories for good or ill, that’s my thing. I didn’t want to accentuate either of the characters’ positions in Science Fiction, so I went with the omniscient narrator. I guess I just really didn’t want to make people entirely aware of either of their actual thoughts, so the outside narrator was more democratic.
DR: When you’re mapping out a story, how do you go about deciding on a narrative voice or point of view? When in the writing process does the best choice become apparent to you? And how does the length of the piece, graphic novel or short story, play into your decision?
JO: I usually go with the main character as narrator. It just occurred to me that I should switch that up; it might be good to narrate from an incidental character’s limited point of view.
It used to be instinctive and obvious, the length of a story, and I would just write a story of whatever length I felt like. For a while I’ve thought, “Oh, I should do a longer story.” That seemed a natural progression, and there’s the fact that shorts stories in comics, as in real books, are a weird sell. So commercial considerations may have made me think longer stories are easier to sell to a publisher as a graphic novel. These days, after I finish this 300-page biography of William Seabrook, I’m just going to do whatever I feel like. I used to do comics just for fun, you know, to amuse myself. I realize that’s actually the best reason to do them and where your best work might come from. And a lot of cartoonists I respect have said the same thing to me, basically, reinforcing that notion: the rewards are so minute in comics, you better be doing it for the reason that you like doing it.
DR: Tell me more about your biography of Seabrook. Why choose him as the subject of your current book?
JO: Well, Seabrook… I’ve been immersed in Seabrook entirely for the last two years, and for ten years altogether since I started researching him, I spent a week in Eugene, Oregon at the university going through the archives of his second wife, the writer, Marjorie Worthington. I don’t know why I decided to do a book about Seabrook. He’s a fascinating study. I guess at a glance, he’s the guy who was friends with all these famous writers and artists: Thomas Mann, Aldous Huxley, Sinclair Lewis, Man Ray, Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dali. He was friends with all these people, and he was this gutter press yellow journalist for Hearst who had gone exploring and wrote best-selling adventure books about the Middle East, Africa, and Haiti. And of course, he was an alcoholic, one-time cannibal, and bondage freak who eventually committed suicide. And nobody seemed to know about him! All of his weirdnesses don’t interest me as much as the fact that he wrote openly about them. That is interesting to me. I guess it goes back to what we were talking about earlier, and that quote from Terence, I like that Seabrook had all these weird aberrations and didn’t hide them like people did at the time, but wrote about them in books published by Knopf and Harcourt Brace and in Reader’s Digest and Ladies Home Journal. The only way he could have gotten away with this is a ton of charm. So, I’ve been researching him a long time, and I wrote and rewrote a script, and eventually, I had no reason not to do it. So I’m in the middle of that now, almost halfway. I guess I’m something of a “Seabrook expert” now, in my tiny, un-educated way, though I’m no scholar, and my approach is heavy research and then filtered through the usual sensibilities I bring to a work of fiction. Anyway, any biography that has dialogue is fiction, in my opinion.
DR: So here you are expanding your repertoire, going from short-story comics, to more novelistic works, and now to graphic biographies. How are you finding this genre, and its demands, different from the kind of writing and art you’re used to doing?
JO: I’m more of a craftsman than an artiste, I do whatever will keep me alive. Right now, I’m not doing my own work because I’m working on comics for a textbook company, and I love that because it pays so much better than doing a book of comics. I’ve done some adaptions of literature for that Graphic Classics series, which was great too. I liked what Jeet Heer said in the intro to my new book, about the “obstinacy verging on pigheadedness” it takes to continue being a cartoonist.
Specifically though, the difference of doing a biography instead of fictions is all these damn facts getting in the way of a good story. There are ways around this, of course. Every biographer turns up the volume on the details that push their agenda and mute the unpleasant truths that do not support their brilliant explanation of a person’s life. You do it without intent even, just by accenting the parts that interest you. Another difficulty of telling a life in comic form is the necessary compression of time because the limits of space is tricky to not have a panel of “Seabrook did this thing, and meanwhile the Spanish influenza killed 18 million people and WW I occurred…” all in one panel. I’m trying to avoid that.
DR: Are there any examples of comics biography that you particularly appreciate and look to as ideal models?
JO: I was trying to avoid looking at comics biographies while I was writing this to avoid unconscious emulation. Though in comics form, at least examples I can think of, people tend to take a more experimental approach in biographies than I am in my Seabrook biography. I am doing a straight-up linear biography. The reason I’m doing it this way is that Seabrook’s story is unknown, and I wanted my book to be an intro for people to the man, and also, his life is incredible enough that it doesn’t need some kind of “jazzing up.” I mean, the guy smoked opium with Jean Cocteau, he stole camels with Bedouin tribesmen, he wrote about the possible scientific explanations of the zombie phenomena years before Wade Davis did in the Serpent and the Rainbow. The guy’s life doesn’t need any structural storytelling padding, I think.
But no, I tried to avoid looking at other comics biographies.
DR: You mentioned earlier your work for Tom Pomplun’s Graphic Classics series. In fact, the very first time I encountered your work was through the adaptation you did for the Edgar Allan Poe volume, “The Premature Burial.” And you’ve contributed to several other volumes in that series. In addition to the craftsman efforts that “keep me alive,” as you put it, do you have a particular fondness for adaptations of classic, or even not-so-classic, works of literature?
JO: Tom Pomplum is great to work with. He’s generous and solid and reliable and pays, and he strives to bring interesting cartoonists in to his books, so it was nice to be in there. I was lucky in that the adaptations he asked me to do happened to be among my favorite stories. There’s the Poe one, and I got to do a version of Dracula (which I mangled, but did to the best of my limited abilities). That whole gothic and Victorian ghost story is a secret love/obsession of mine. It’s not something that ever comes out in my own work, but I have read everything in that genre, and I go back to it, and it’s like mashed potatoes and gravy to me, it’s stuff that makes me feel good and feeds me. I don’t know why it doesn’t come out in my work. Maybe it takes a more deft hand than mine to draw that stuff effectively. I think what Emily Carroll is doing in Through the Woods is so fantastic. She’s just so talented to be able to make scary comics that are actually frightening. That’s an accomplishment. That’s amazing. If I could do that kind of work, I’d be more likely to attempt this stuff.
DR: I agree with you on Carroll’s work, and not just Through the Woods. She demonstrates the same gothic tone in her webcomics. If you love that kind of writing, and if it’s such a draw for you, why not bring out the gothic or romance in your own comics?
JO: Who knows why you make one kind of art and not another? I suppose, though I love to read and watch movies from that gothic or romance tradition, I probably lack the skills to pull that kind of work off effectively. My style is bug-eyes and buck teeth, and that might fizzle in the realm of scary comics. (I also really love those old Warren magazines. Jesus, that’s another secret vice of mine.) There’s a lot of other genres I love, too, that I never attempt to work in. I love children’s book illustration. Again, I don’t have the chops to pull off that style of art. My art style probably doesn’t suit the kind of comics I actually do! Who knows, I might do that kind of comics one day. I really love the whole detective noir genre, and a lot of people like Rich Tommaso and others are already doing great stuff within that genre. I’d like to do that too, but maybe it’s best to leave it to more capable hands and just enjoy reading it.
DR: I’ve also noticed that about all of your comics take place in more contemporary settings, where you’re dealing with lives in times that are familiar or close to us. Is this a conscious preference of yours, or do the stories just naturally flow from you with that context?
JO: Current settings make sense in terms of writing what you know, and from a technical standpoint, it’s easier to draw familiar surroundings without the need for massive research on period costume and local flora and fauna (like I’m currently in the middle of with the Seabrook biography). It’s probably a bit of laziness too. Also, and this completely contradicts what I just said in my previous response, but I would feel like a fraud creating any kind of fantasy or superhero thing. I’m interested in the human condition, so it just makes sense to deal with what I’m familiar with.
DR: Do you think that certain genres, such as superhero or fantasy narratives, don’t allow creators to get at the human condition? Is it best expressed, at least for you, through a form of realism?
JO: Oh no, not at all, they do! Oh man, people have been saying that about all comics forever!
No, no, there’s great work done in superhero and fantasy. I just don’t think I could effectively do that. I’m open-minded enough to realize there is great work that addresses the human condition in any genre. I actually like when you are surprised when something surpasses the low origins of its genre or if it’s a genre that I don’t particularly like. I don’t really like sports, and I usually avoid sports movies, but I think I can remember seeing a sports movie that I liked. I can’t remember what sports movie it was though.
DR: Back in the early 1990s, you put out the eclectic — and eccentric? — Wag! You were both editor and contributor, right?
JO: Yeah, I was the editor, printer, collator, binder, and only real contributor, under a bunch of pseudonyms. That was a strange little hybrid comics/zine thing I did for years. Each issue was a perfect bound little book with an original painting in the front. I sold thousands of those back then. Gary Groth wrote me a letter saying he might be interested in publishing it, but it never happened. Wag! was me doing whatever I felt like, from straight short stories with spot illustrations to gag cartoons to weirdy experimental comics. It was a strange thing. But that was genuine stuff, in that I was just doing this with no thought of an audience or reviews or sales or my “career” or anything. Andy at Conundrum and I put together a collection of that stuff in a book called The Big Book of Wag! I’m sure Andy is heating his house by burning those as we speak.
DR: Yeah, I know of Wag! through The Big Book of Wag!, and I know that in your introduction to that book, you have fun with the facts of the publication’s history, status, impact, and such. But I had no idea that you were the only real contributor…and from the sound of it, the whole enchilada. So you began this at an exciting time for alternative comics, with titles like Eightball, Hate, Yummy Fur, Palookaville, and Optic Nerve really coming to the fore. I know that you were doing a different kind of thing, a hybrid comics/zine publication, as you point out, but did you look at any of these other titles as either inspiration or competition?
JO: Yeah, that was all me. There are about two exceptions of people I knew adding something. But I had all these “clever” pseudonyms, like Erica Blair (feminized version of George Orwell’s real name = aren’t I a clever 20-something-box-factory-worker?) and Alcazar Spania, was a name I took from a label on a banana I remember. He sounded like a journeyman cartoonist illustrating horror comics for James Warren.
Eightball and Hate. It cannot be stated the impact these two books have had on cartoonists. I would go as far as to say we probably wouldn’t have the modern state-of-the-art comics or graphic novels if not for these guys and, of course Love and Rockets and Seth’s, Chester’s, and Adrian’s books, too. That’s probably overstating it, because I love all those guys too much. And there is also Chris Ware and a lot of little weird comic anthologies that Fantagraphics published in the ’80s and ’90s. That’s another thing, Fantagraphic’s recent Kickstarter made me revisit the importance of that company and Gary and Kim and all the books that would never have seen the light of day if not for them. They are such an integral and sometimes overlooked part of why comics are the way they are today.
DR: Yeah, publishers like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly have a great track record of nurturing particular creators, and over time, to where the press as a whole becomes a distinctive “brand.” I mean, those two publishers focus on similar kinds of creators, but a Drawn & Quarterly book is distinctive enough to where you won’t mistake it for something from Fantagraphics. And you could say the same of other alternative and smaller presses. Do you get a sense that Conundrum is like that, working with and developing certain authors in a unique way?
JO: I think Conundrum is just finally starting to get the recognition that it deserves. Andy Brown has a built a solid catalogue and made the transition from publishing straight fiction to exclusively graphic novels years ago, and they are publishing consistently interesting stuff. I think people are starting to notice. I see now that when we are at trade shows and people are seeking the Conundrum table. Before they would have been like, “Who?” Andy’s got a good eye for talent, and he’s a mensch and supportive. He’s a good editor who, I know, has worked with a lot of people and has really helped shape some of the books he’s published. He’s also got an in with the vast unexplored wealth of French cartoonists from Quebec whose works he’s had translated and published in English. Plus, he’s a one-man operation! Aside from Serena McCarroll handling the Twitter and Facebook accounts, he’s doing everything by himself. He’s amazing. He mailed me their latest catalogue, and I was really dazzled by the list of books he’s got coming up. I told him, I’d be incredibly impressed by your current catalogue even if I didn’t know you.
DR: You joke in the author blurbs of your books that your French is lousy, but I would guess that you’re tuned into the Canadian French-language comics scene much more than most people. So first off: how poor is your French? But more significantly, what kind of unexplored comics wealth are you seeing there in Quebec?
JO: My French is actually pretty bad. The thing about Montreal, where I lived for thirteen years, is that almost all of the French people there speak excellent English, and they are extremely forgiving and polite, in my experience, to someone struggling to communicate in French and will switch to English. Which is very kind, but it also makes learning the language very difficult. I should have taken French lessons which the government provides for free or almost free, but I was always busy, and I’m somewhat of a workaholic and rarely go out. Two of my French cartoonist friends have differing opinions on my level of French. Phillip Girard insists I speak excellent French, though I have never given him cause to think that, and Pascal Girard outed my complete lack of French in his TCJ cartoonist diary.
The comics scene in Quebec, and specifically Montreal, is amazing. There are so many cartoonist there. I think the people who grew up there had a longer and wider influence of reading comics from France and Belgium all their lives before that kind of work was available to the English world, so comics really seems to be in their blood. I really miss being surrounded by all those cartoonists; it was inspiring. I’m really glad that a lot of the French cartoonists are finally starting to be discovered in English thanks to Conundrum and Drawn & Quarterly, and now Pow Pow just successfully completed their Kickstarter to translate their books into English.
DR: Do you think that there is a division or an imbalance of attention between Canadian comics creators — especially those who produce French-language comics — and those south of your border?
JO: I think the English Canadians are well-represented in the US. I mean, we’ve got Seth and Chester Brown and Julie Doucet to begin with, which is not a bad start. But I think that aside from Michel Rabagliati, it’s mostly English creators who have been known outside of Canada. But that has shifted in the last few years. There’s so much talent among the French cartoonists, I think it’s impossible to ignore. You have Pascal Girard, Jimmy Beaulieu, and Sophie Yanow who all seem to be making a name in the US, and I could name a ton of others. I think it’s an imbalance that is being rectified, and everyone will benefit from that.
DR: I agree that Seth and Chester Brown have substantial and continued exposure in the US, but I find that a lot of readers, even those who go for the alternative kind of comics, aren’t as familiar with Doucet. I’d guess this is due to her withdrawal from the comics scene, although I’d love to see Drawn & Quarterly put out a complete edition of Dirty Plotte, including the early minicomic.
JO: You will know far better, as an American, which cartoonists are better known in America, of course, but I had thought Julie was pretty revered, but that may be just among cartoonists. I have inflated notions of the fame of my heroes, I suppose. I forget what small, insular world indie comics is. I get reminders daily, though, it seems. I would suspect you’re right about her withdrawal from comics that her renown might have faded among the younger set. That may have been her intent. I think she had a complicated relationship with comics and the comic scene, as a woman in what was then, and to a large extent, very much a man’s game. I don’t know, but some of that may have been written about. Her work is so goddam original and vibrant and amazing and influential today, as much as it was when it first came out, and I wish everyone was reading it. But she may not want that, I don’t know. She’s making all kinds of beautiful other kinds of art. She’s the kind of artist that, whatever she does, it’s going to be wonderful.
DR: The French-language creators you mentioned, though, are gaining more traction here in the States. Pascal Girard is more on my radar now, thanks (again) to Drawn & Quarterly. And Sophie Yanow’s War of Streets and Houses is high on my to-read list. In fact, I think it’s interesting that Tom Kaczynski is the one publishing Yanow’s book, since he’s trying to do with Uncivilized Books what you’ve been describing in terms of Conundrum. But do you think there is a kind of ghettoization with French Canadian cartoonists, English speakers — and largely US-based — lumping the group together, despite varying styles and approaches? And that grouping being, perhaps inadvertently, nurtured by the publishers?
JO: I think it’s mostly a lack of awareness, and with Conundrum and D&Q and Uncivilized — and now Pow Pow will be publishing their authors in English — it’s a problem that is on the verge of being rectified. Good comics are good comics, and if people can read them in their own language, they’ll buy them. Hell, I buy comics in languages I don’t understand, just to visually read them. I’m sure lots of people do that. Uncivilized Books is great, by the way. Tom Kaczynski is a great cartoonist, and he’s formed a really wonderful publishing house. He’s got a great eye for talent, and his design sense is great. All the books he publishes are interesting, and he’s just doing everything right.
DR: You’ve been a publisher before with the aforementioned Wag! Would you consider getting back into that side of the business, maybe doing something like Kaczynski is doing and on a small scale, or would you only be a publisher of your own work?
JO: Oh no. Wag! was manageable, I did every stage of the work from art and writing to print and binding, and I just sold them at shows and local stores. There was no overhead at all. But I have published before. I added to that stack of black-and-white comics glut back in the ’80s. I did three issues of a not very memorable comic called Dirty Nails Comics. It was pure halfwit juvenilia. It was an anthology, with one main continuing story, a half-assed science fiction/conspiracy story called “The System,” which combined hints of my punk radical political leanings and an attempt at making a modern superhero comic in the real world. I can also tell you it was absolutely terrible. So bad. Ah well…
Publishing is business, and I am bad at business. The shipping costs and border brokerage fees nearly killed me, so I killed Dirty Nails Comics, instead, and started doing the self-published Wag! which was more sustainable. I don’t think I’d ever do that again. I mean, I leave that stuff to leveler heads than mine, and I’m so thankful that there people out there willing to do that work. People like Andy Brown and Annie Koyama and Tom Kaczynski and all the other small publishers out there. I’m sure there’s not a lot of them getting mega-rich at this. They’re doing this because they love it. That’s pretty nice.
DR: Do you have any desires to work within the mainstream of comics? And by “mainstream” I don’t mean only the Big Two, but also other premiere publishers such as Image, Dark Horse, or IDW?
JO: I’ll work for anyone who will pay me and distribute the work. There’s that Lenny Bruce bit about playing “good rooms.” He says something like, if he could perform at the Carnegie Hall or the Scranton Christian Science Reading Room, and the Reading Room is paying 100 bucks more, he’ll play the Reading Room. I feel like that. More money is always good, and getting the work more widely seen: those are my two main concerns. But there’s a lot to be said for working with a publisher that you know and trust and who has faith in your work, as well. Andy at Conundrum has been incredibly supportive, and I’m happy working with him.
DR: What about regular periodicals? Have you ever pitched, either by yourself or with a potential collaborator, an idea for an on-going monthly (or bimonthly) comic book?
JO: I have never pitched. I am very far off the radar of those companies. I’m probably somewhere in a time zone before they even invented radar. If I were writing for a company like that I would probably up the “kitchen sink drama” aspect so far that there would be no super element left anyway. I’d like to just write, though. Drawing is hard, and you become less driven to draw as you get older and it gets harder.
DR: Outside of your adaptations for the Graphic Classics series, what kind of collaborations have you done?
JO: I did a collaboration with a reporter, an exposé on shitty Canadian gold-mining practices in Guatemala. It was kind of the opposite of Joe Sacco’s reportage comics. Not for the reporter, Dawn Paley, who was living in Guatemala, in the thick of it, and wrote the story that I adapted and illustrated for the book, Extraction! It was all comics reportage about bad mining practices in a variety of countries. Then I did a strip, Milo and Sam with Andy Brown about our two sons growing up together in Montreal. Conundrum published a tiny little book of that last year. No other collaborations, really.
DR: Outside of your Seabrook biography, what else are you working on now?
JO: Beside freelance comics that keep me alive, I’m only working on the Seabrook. It’s a big, big task. A lot of visual research and elaborate scenes. I actually break out of my nine-panel grid and draw big panoramic scenes in this. I just passed the halfway point of 300 pages, but there’s a lot more to do, and then I have to add duotones and edit and scan pages. It could be another year and a half before it’s done. (It’s probably a lot longer than that, but my sanity can’t allow me to say that outside these parenthesis.) Oh, another cool thing I’m working on is doing the covers and introductions in comic form for Dover Publications’ new line of Seabrook reprints. They’re planning on releasing all of his books, starting with Asylum, his documentation of his stay in a mental hospital to cure his alcoholism. It’s a great book! I’m really excited that his books are finally back in print, and Dover is really invested in getting Seabrook’s books back in readers’ hands.
DR: With all of your immersion in Seabrook, are you afraid of becoming — or perhaps wanting to become — known as the “Seabrook guy” in comics?
JO: Well, it kind of surprised me when Dover contacted me. I was like, Why would they ask me to write about Seabrook? But I’ve been researching him for over ten years. I’m not a proper academic or anything, but just from, as you say, immersion, I am some kind of an expert. I don’t think I’ll become the Seabrook guy, though who knows. I think the story’s fascinating and could sell some books, but I don’t think it will be something I can coast on forever. I’m actually looking forward to finishing and getting back to fiction. So much easier! If you don’t want to draw horses, you don’t write about horses. Brilliant!
DR: Are there any particular stories, or perhaps types of fiction, you’re wanting to focus on next?
JO: I have a bunch of stories written, my usual depressing and hopefully funny stories about life. I’ve got a lot of outlines in my notebooks. I have a zombie book that I wrote an outline as a joke while talking to my daughter, and then we both said, that’s actually a really good idea. I’m even toying with this idea for a sort of sequel to Mid-Life that follows up on my fictional alter-ego later in life facing death. A rollicking, split-your-sides fun-fest. I’ve go no shortage of material, just this desperation of how long it takes to make this stuff, these stupid comics.
DR: Like I said before, the short story is your forte. Have you ever considered doing a short-story cycle, or what some might call a composite novel?
JO: I have an outline for four related stories that had common characters and were linked. I may or may get to it. I usually wait until I finish a project and then see which new idea I have the strongest urge to work on. After you release a book, there’s a two-minute window of feeling like you don’t need to start something new, but it doesn’t last long. I had another idea that I’ve long been percolating about: taking secondary or incidental characters from Dickens and other great novels and making a book of short stories based on them, like Peter Carey did in Jack Maggs, which was the story of the Magwitch character from Great Expectations and what happened to him in the unknown years when he was transported to Australia and how he became rich. I may do that book of related stories one day. (Which is probably not exactly what you are asking about.) It always comes down to finding time. I remember hearing Seth in an interview contemplating how many books he figured he had time left to do. That’s how you think in middle age. Depressing, but also motivating, I guess.
DR: Do you work best when you’re focused on only one project at a time, devoting all of your attention in that direction and nothing more, or do you see yourself as being able to handle multiple writing/illustrating tasks at one time, dividing your efforts among them?
JO: I’m super-linear (you may have noticed my ridiculous adherence to the nine-panel grid?) and I tend to work on one project, in sequence, until it’s done. I have to interrupt to do other work that pays better and I can do that, so in theory, I could work on multiple projects. I guess I just choose to work on one at a time, possibly from habit or comfort.
DR: You mention your love of the nine-panel grid. What do you consider your most experimental work, the one where you have gone off the grid, so to speak, and ventured outside of your comfort zone? And not only in terms of design or technique, but also subject matter?
JO: The thing with me and the nine-panel grid is two-fold. I look at the panel as a movie screen, a movie screen doesn’t change shape, the size and crop of the image changes within it. So that’s always been my reason for that. But incidentally, the nine-panel grid and the page size I usually conform to (roughly 6 x 9) makes for tall, narrow panels. I’m overly-verbose and that configuration of panel allows for the lengthy narration I usually have in a lot of panels, and the drawings aren’t as small as those ones that Charles Crumb was doing when he was creating those obsessive comics about Treasure Island. I am actually consciously breaking the nine-panel grid in this Seabrook biography. He’s travelling all over the world, it’s a book about an explorer, so it required some larger expositional panels. I’ve been doing full-pages, panoramic wide shots. I’m all over the place as I thought the story required that David Lean widescreen treatment. I’ll probably stick the grid after that, or not. Who knows?
DR: Given your self-professed verbosity, have you considered creating stories outside of the comics medium? Have you written fiction, or perhaps considered screen- or teleplays?
JO: I often think about writing a straight book, without pictures. It would take half the time! I used to write fiction just for the sake of writing, but I rarely do any art these days that is not for a deadline. Which is kind of sad I guess. I got hired by a production company in France that bought the rights to Mid-Life. I wrote a screenplay for them, but they never managed to get the actors they wanted, and eventually the project died. But movie money is real money, nothing like comics money, and I lived on that for years. There’s another director who wants to make that film now, and I’m considering reworking the script for a North American audience.
DR: Is this new director also wanting to do Mid-Life? Outside of the North American setting, how else might you revise the script for this particular project?
JO: Yeah, he wants to do Mid-Life. A lot of people were really interested in making a movie of that book. The script written for France was funny in that the director — who was a very funny, dry, droll kind of guy — kept asking me to remove things that felt false to him. I was like, We’re taking out all the jokes! But, in the end, it was a good move, he wanted it rooted in the real world so people would care about the characters. He really liked the book and wanted to make a good movie of it. Another thing was the book hinged on infidelity or whether that infidelity would occur. That was a big issue as he said, “People in France, we don’t care so much about infidelity,” so the crux has to be more about the relationship. I’ll see what I have to change for a North American audience. I have to look at it again, if that other director is still interested. We’re both in the middle of other projects right now.
DR: You had mentioned a possible follow-up to Mid-Life. Would any work toward that project happen with the potential film in mind? And do you think that context might shape the way you would create the new narrative?
JO: A Mid-Life follow up is merely a possibility I’m toying around with in my subconscious. No real plan at all. I wouldn’t think in terms of a book in how it would work as a movie. That would probably be a bad idea. Movie stuff is always kind of flimsy, and you can never count on it. There can be a ton of money, but more often, there’s a lot of anticipation and disappointment. With comics, it pays awful, but at least someone will usually publish the book in the end.
DR: How much of your storytelling rumination — at least in its initial stages and bouncing around in your subconscious — do you feel is visually based? Do you conjure mental breakdowns before even putting pencil to paper?
JO: I’m less visual in the planning stages. I do try and write myself away from illustration pitfalls by not writing things that I am terrible at drawing. But mostly, I’m writing as if I were writing a short story. I deal with the problems/solutions of converting how things work visually after that. I find that I have a Rainman-like ability in my story outlines that breaks down perfectly into my nine-panel grids, completely without any intent of doing so.
DR: You’ve worked in comics from a variety of perspectives: as a writer, as an illustrator, as a publisher, as an editor, as a DIYer, and as a creator for smaller and larger presses. For young artists wanting to pursue their love of comics, especially those with an interest outside of the mainstream, what words of encouragement would you give them? Or, given your aforementioned depressed view of things, what kind of caution would you relate?
JO: What I am realizing, or rather re-realizing — if that is a real word or not, you will get my meaning — is that the only reason to be making comics is because you love it and because it’s a compulsion. If you have any ideas of “making it” in comics or making a lot of money or even making a living, it’s pretty rare, so for me, the main thing is to be doing the work with no ulterior motives. Ulterior motives mess with your head and affect the work. The only other thing I always suggest to young people is to read everything, all the comics, all the books, watch all the movies and animation and learn from them, good and bad, to make your own work better by the study. And work hard at it. Comics are hard, but you see the young cartoonists I like that do great work and constantly get better, and they work at it all the time. Noah Van Sciver, Michael DeForge, Laura Park, Dakota McFadzean, Dustin Harbin (and a lot of others that I can’t think of), all the young cartoonists who produce a lot and are always getting better: they are constantly working, and the dedication pays off, as I see it.
DR: Do you feel that you’ve followed that advice throughout most of your career? That you’ve learned how it’s done every step of the way?
JO: Yeah, I guess, I mean, I’m not exactly some kind of example of success for people to follow. I could only advise what I’ve done, or should have done. I could have worked harder a lot of times. But I always looked at my cartoonist friends and many of them seemed lazier than me, which felt good. I mean, all the work in the world won’t give you natural ability, but it will improve what skills you do have. I guess I should have taken more drawing courses and observed more. That’s what my art teacher in high school kept admonishing me to do: to look and stop drawing what I think I see, and draw what I actually see. But I still draw a doctor with a round, reflective mirror on their head, sometimes.