Holy shit, you guys. I got to interview Chris Ware!
Similar to last issue’s profile of Charles Burns, this “Palmer’s Picks” highlights one of the other all-time great serialized graphic novels, Jimmy Corrigan, and how it developed from its first appearance in Ware’s newspaper strip to its subsequent retooling for his Acme Novelty Library series. Revisiting this old column from Wizard magazine offers a unique perspective since Ware was in the midst of his career-defining work.
As I’ve mentioned earlier on this blog, I was trying to time the publication of each “Palmer’s Picks” with the release of new comics or significant stories. Thanks in part to my mention of Chris Ware in my year-end column in Wizard #41, Tammy Watson from the promotions department at Ware’s publisher Fantagraphics sent me a preview of the upcoming “Jimmy Corrigan” story from Acme Novelty Library and an offer to set up an interview. I realized I would be an idiot to turn that opportunity down, so I enthusiastically called Tammy to get everything squared away. I had already given a lot of ink to many Fantagraphics comics over the course of “Palmer’s Picks,” so it was great to have a contact at the company. Tammy was later replaced by the great Eric Reynolds, the current associate publisher at Fantagraphics, who was able to strengthen the relationship and helped facilitate interviews with other Fantagraphics artists like Bob Fingerman (in Wizard #55) and Dave Cooper (in Wizard #61).
At the end of this interview, Ware sings the praises of the late Kim Thompson, noting how he had the mark of a good editor and knew when to get out of the way. As co-publisher of Fantagraphics, Thompson had his hands in a lot of great comics. Two key ones that stand out in my mind are the celebrated anthology series Zero Zero and the translated works of French master Jacques Tardi. Thompson was also the editor of Amazing Heroes, a sister magazine to the Comics Journal that had a more mainstream focus.
Amazing Heroes might not be held in such high esteem as the Journal, but it played a key role in my development as a comics reader. The magazine didn’t restrict it’s focus to just Marvel and DC—superhero and sci-fi comics from indy publishers like First and Eclipse got their fair share of coverage. The regular Amazing Heroes Preview Specials—massive tomes with a dizzying collection of plans for the future of virtually every comic being published—were a great resource in the pre-Internet era. Amazing Heroes also published occasional swimsuit specials and, believe it or not, this is where the magazine had it’s biggest influence on me. While these swimsuit specials were nothing more than a collection of pin-ups, they were not the typical sleazy cash-grab. Imagine Ted McKeever characters in bathing suits and you get the idea. Contributors to the specials were a strange cross-section of the late ’80s/early ’90s comics biz, including Bill Sienkiewicz, Evan Dorkin, Eddie Campbell, and Los Bros Hernandez.
At some point in 1990, my dad—comic book inker Tom Palmer Sr.—got a form letter from Kim Thompson inviting him to contribute to the next swimsuit special. The thing to note about the invitation was that it offered two options for payment: a fairly low page rate, or a generous gift certificate for books from Fantagraphics’ mail order catalog. Somehow I convinced my dad to not only take time out of his busy schedule to draw something, but to also forego payment and let me partake in some of that sweet Fantagraphics mail order.
In keeping with the off-beat tone of previous swimsuit specials, my dad’s contribution was a pin-up showing why it’s not a good idea for Dr. Doom to lounge around the pool. I don’t remember every book that was bought with the loot for the endeavor, but I know my dad got a copy of Ralph Steadman’s America, among other books, while I scored Bill Griffith’s travel sketchbook Get Me a Table Without Flies, Harry, Drew Friedman‘s Any Similarity To Persons Living Or Dead Is Purely Coincidental, and some Eightball back issues and a subscription. All of the books I got were excellent, but Dan Clowes‘ one-man anthology really showed me what was possible with the artform of comics, and it’s a little preposterous to think that I was introduced to it thanks to Kim Thompson and an Amazing Heroes Swimsuit Special.
So, anyway, this “Palmer’s Picks” was all about Chris Ware. You probably don’t need me to tell you how amazing he is. But if you need a reminder, take a look back at my original interview with him from the pages of Wizard #49.
A Library of Fun
By Tom Palmer Jr.
With the price tags on comic books currently skyrocketing at an unreasonable rate, it is almost impossible to really get your money’s worth from a comic. When you buy an issue of Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library, however, you know that your hard-earned cash is well-spent. Aside from the lavish production values and inventive formats of each issue, Ware’s critically acclaimed comic contains working cut-out toys, hilarious fake ads and tightly-packed columns of text. But don’t let all of these extras fool you; on top of the attractive package, the Acme Novelty Library also features pages and pages of delicately drawn and precisely designed comics. Each issue of the Acme Novelty Library warrants several re-readings in order to really absorb everything that goes on in the comic.
This June, Ware began “Jimmy Corrigan—The Smartest Kid on Earth,” a new eight-part story featuring one of Ware’s most-recognized characters and his search for his estranged father. Ware describes the first part of “Jimmy Corrigan,” which is actually the fifth issue in the Acme Novelty Library, as “the first chapter of an incredibly long, boring story. I’m sure by the time it’s all done there will probably only be a few people who have actually stuck with it.”
“Jimmy Corrigan” has been serialized for the past two years in weekly installments for Chicago’s New City newspaper. “Maybe it reads better in larger chunks, but it seems like a completely foolish endeavor to try to do something so big. I designed the weekly strip so that I was actually doing two pages for the comic. Otherwise I’d be working on it until the turn of the millennium, which I may actually do anyway.”
Despite Ware’s self-effacing comments, he is definitely an innovative and ground-breaking artist who takes the comics artform to a new level of sophistication and complexity. Ware readily makes use of intricate panel layouts and page designs to experiment with the way the human eye flows through a page. He achieves an expert balance of design and content through his combination of sequential images and text.
Ware understands why comics are an exciting artform open to experimentation. “What makes a comic strip or cartooning unique is that writing and drawing are simultaneous acts that cannot be separated. I don’t even think of myself as a writer or an artist, necessarily, except when one begins to pick the process apart. Drawing a picture in a comic strip is, in a sense, writing, so I don’t spend more time thinking about the story or the drawing, because to me they’re the same thing.”
When creating the stories behind his characters, Ware extrapolates from his experiences. “Anything that you write is obviously based on your own experience, to one degree or another. Dostoyevsky hopefully didn’t kill an old woman, but he managed to convince the careful reader of the feelings that one might go through [after doing] something like that. The job of any writer is to try to lie effectively, or to try to turn lying into something that’s really no longer a lie.”
One of the reasons that Ware’s work is so fresh is his spontaneous working methods. Unlike other creators who plan their comics ahead of time, Ware works directly on the page. “I go pretty much panel by panel. There might be certain things that I want to emphasize, but I don’t do sketches or roughs of every page. There are so many ideas that come up while I’m drawing, that trying to map something out ahead of time sometimes can kill some of those connections.”
Ware acknowledges that his comics don’t come out perfect on the first try. “I go back and correct things. Basically, the first draft is whatever appears in the newspapers, but there isn’t a whole lot of changing going on. It’s mostly tweaking and changing the rhythm and stuff. Comics are so boring to draw, and they take so long that you just have to try to do all sorts of different things to keep yourself interested. If I wrote it all out and just drew from a bunch of little doodles, it would become kind of tiresome after a while.”
Ware’s weekly deadlines for his newspaper strip also make his work instinctive and inventive. He’s been working for New City since 1992, and also worked on the college newspaper while at the University of Texas. “I’ve tried to maintain that weekly deadline just to keep me making stuff, because if I didn’t, I’d most likely just be lazy and not do anything.”
His newspaper work has taught Ware quite a bit about reproducing artwork. “There were a couple of guys who worked in the camera room [at college] who helped me to understand exactly how a drawing gets from the drawing to the paper, and all the steps in between. That’s how I learned to do a lot of manipulations of the negatives, though it’s a bit different now, in that a lot of the separations are computer-colored, so I’m slightly more removed. I indicate the colors, and then someone else does the separations.”
Working with Fantagraphics Books has given Ware a great amount of control over his work, from the initial idea to the final printed package. “I have more control than probably any artist should actually have. So every mistake that’s there is mine. Kim Thompson is supposedly the editor, but he has never told me ‘no’ yet. He’s helped me with some punctuation difficulties, but other than that, he’s gone out of his way to make sure every issue is perfect. He’s even suggested upgrading paper stocks and getting better printers. I couldn’t ask for a better place to get stuff printed.”
Tom Palmer Jr. is a painfully shy lad who never leaves the house without his personal bodyguard.
FYI: The Acme Novelty Library is published by Fantagraphics Books. The first part of “Jimmy Corrigan” was released in June, and future issues of this 7″ x 6″ full-color comic will appear on a quarterly basis. If you have trouble finding copies at your favorite comic store, write to Fantagraphics Books, 7563 Lake City Way NE, Seattle, WA 98115 or call 1-800-657-1100 for a free catalog or subscription information.
Chris Ware’s Recommended Reading: “I always hate doing this sort of thing, because I always think of something later that I left out. Obviously, I read all the usual culprits, like Eightball, Hate, all those sorts of things. I think lately there’s been some great stuff published.” Ware says that some of that “great stuff” includes Adrian Tomine‘s Optic Nerve, The Biologic Show by Al Columbia, Charles Burns‘ new book Black Hole, Archer Prewitt‘s Sof’ Boy, Jason Lutes‘ Jar of Fools, Gary Panter‘s new comic book Jimbo, Collier’s by David Collier, Joe Matt‘s Peepshow, Underwater by Chester Brown and Palooka-Ville by Seth.
Tom’s Recommended Reading
A.K.A. Goldfish: Brian Michael Bendis‘ series of interlocking one-shots continues with A.K.A. Goldfish: Joker, on sale in August. With so many “crime” comics popping up lately, A.K.A. Goldfish is distinguished from the rest by Bendis’ sharp dialogue, tight storytelling and crisp, stylized artwork. You can get in touch with Brian at Boom Boom Studios,
PO Box 14736, Cleveland, OH 44114, or you can call Caliber Press, A.K.A. Goldfish‘s publisher, directly at 1-800-346-8940.
Atomic City Special: If you haven’t had a chance to pick up Jay Stephens‘ wonderful Atomic City Tales, then you owe it to yourself to try this new one-shot comic. Aside from containing all-new stories, this comic reprints and completes a story originally serialized in Sputnik magazine. “Offbeat” doesn’t begin to describe the characters that wander around this comic. But the one thing that realty makes this a top-notch book is Stephens’ accomplished pen and brush work. For more information, write to Black Eye Productions,
338 Kribs Street, Cambridge, Ontario, Canada N3C 3J3, or those of you floating in cyberspace can e-mail them at [email protected].
New Hat: Due to immense stupidity on my part, I forgot to mention Tom Hart‘s Hutch Owen’s Working Hard when it first came out a year ago. So now I can beg you to write to Tom at
PO Box 95973, Seattle, WA 98145-2973, and ask him to forgive me. You can also make up for my huge oversight by buying Tom’s New Hat, out in July from the fine folks at Black Eye Productions (see above). If Hutch Owen was any indication of Tom Hart’s talent, then New Hat will be a superb comic full of sharp insights and biting humor. You’ll just have to pick up a copy and see for yourself.