I’m always on the lookout for mainstream cartoonists who struggle with balancing comics that stem from a cultural nadir and those worthy of a stricter critical stance. You can spot the type if you look closely enough, those who move around the limitations of the material they work on by refining their skills and their styles. The pendulum swings between the Big Two, and this time around it’s Marvel Comics who employ all of the oddballs: Marcos Martin, Das Pastoras, Chris Bachalo, and Gabriel Hernandez Walta to name the very few. I confidently submit Jason Latour to this prestigious list.
To a great extent, I first recognized Latour’s impressive narrative sense and his confident, economic ink line in an issue of Daredevil. It was a brief breath of fresh air for the character, but it didn’t quite come from out of nowhere. Latour had spent the second half of the decade cutting his teeth over at Image Comics as he drew, colored, and lettered books such as The Expatriate and Battle Pope: Wrath of God. His major learning curve may have been on Vertigo’s Noche Roja, but Latour has came into his own recently while drawing short stories for Marvel. He’s also added writing to his to-do list, scripting the co-creator owned Southern crime drama Loose Ends. It seems that his talent is meeting his ambition and the results are worth taking note of.
In discussing comics with Latour I wanted to determine the level of his passion for the field, and how the industry’s history relates to modern commercial comics. I essentially wanted to examine the perspective of someone who works within today’s major league company structure. My hunch that the quasi-journeymen of this generation are primarily fueled by unconditional enthusiasm was confirmed by Latour’s own excitement.
I was fortunate enough to ask Latour about these issues in person. He graciously divulged his thoughts on creator rights, product logos as literary vehicles, working under the auspices of a comic book imperialism, why fanboys shouldn’t pile up on Walt Simonson or Alan Moore, and why assembly line comics are in danger of losing their foothold on storytelling. This sort of insight serves as a glimpse into how a young, successful artist views his position not only within a media empire, but also within the art form that helped shape his world view.
BEHIND THE CURTAIN
JASON LATOUR: I had the opportunity to meet Frank Miller once, when I lived here in New York. It’s not why I didn’t meet him, but it later occurred to me that I was probably gonna get into an argument with this guy over politics or something. I just can’t keep my mouth shut and I would’ve ended up feeling terrible for acting like an ass to someone who has done way more than what I could ever see myself doing. I’ll be lucky to do one tenth of what that dude’s done, for ill or for good. No matter what I think of his work, he did it. How many people could say that?
MICHEL FIFFE: Sure, but you still have your own set of opinions and values.
LATOUR: Yeah, but I’ve lost so many idols…
FIFFE: Because of mouthing off?
LATOUR: Well, y’know, it’s interesting that comics creators were once much more segregated, in that you would read a book by one of your heroes, whether it be Walt Simonson or Rick Leonardi or somebody, and you would have no idea what they would look like. You had no idea where they lived. You had nothing unless you ran into them at a con. Growing up, I was lucky because HeroesCon is in my hometown so a lot those artists came through. I was at least able to put names to faces. In some instances I got to meet some of them. It’s a weird thing, the walls being down now.
FIFFE: Yeah, there’s no curtain.
LATOUR: Right, there’s no curtain at all. But I guess there’s no reason to be elitist about it, the industry is too small for people to think that they have to hide behind the curtain. If anything it helps to invite people in. But at the same time, we increasingly know more and more about how the sausage is made.
FIFFE: And everyone’s trying to make it.
FIFFE: I think there’s something to be said about respecting your idols, but there’s a danger of turning them into sacred cows. I think they should be challenged, especially a guy like Miller. I think he’d welcome that kind of challenge.
LATOUR: To a certain extent yes, but first of all, you’re talking about a dude who is rich. Like, why is he even drawing comic books other than because he likes them? I respect that. The other thing is that whether you like his art or not, it is bold. He lives with his mistakes as often as his successes. It’s hard to consider that he’s a mainstream guy because that stuff does not look mainstream at all. It’s the thing that he and Mike Mignola share. Mignola seems to brazenly draw the way he draws. That’s why he’s my favorite, or consistently one of my favorites.
WRITING & DRAWING WITHIN GENRE
FIFFE: Let’s talk a little about what we were saying before we started recording, about the difference between comic book drawing and writing and about the different muscles they use. What’s the difference, aside from problem solving? How do you approach both skills?
FIFFE: Loose Ends is the first thing you’ve written?
LATOUR: Yeah, well, there’s been some short stuff that I’ve experimented with that I’m not happy with. It’s a tough question, man, because the two things feed each other in a weird way. I wouldn’t know what it’s like to write comics and not be able to draw. In some ways I’m in awe of writers who seem disinterested in drawing, claiming to be incapable of it, yet still write visually. In indie comics, most cartoonists are both writer and artist, but in the mainstream the best example of what I’m talking about is John Arcudi or Jason Aaron. Guys who don’t draw at all but are capable of writing things that have visual subtext. That’s something that a lot of mainstream comics don’t have. When you watch a movie, you read the images as much as you listen to what is being said. In comics, that’s a rarity. One thing generally dominates, image or word. They’ve often been divorced. That’s why it’s hard for me to answer that question because I think those two things have been separated, but I don’t see them that way. Whether it be writing or drawing, for me it always starts with story. A question for the character.
FIFFE: Like what the point of the story is? The plot?
LATOUR: I think plots grow out of naturally examining things. In comics, there’s already a built in structure. Like in a super-hero book, there are things that are always in a superhero book. If it’s a crime book, it has generally a handful of similar elements that define it as “crime.” If you’re well versed enough in these genres and know what the guideposts are, you can then form an idea of an interesting conflict. It generally begins with, “What is a question I have about my own life? What genre can I use to explore that? How does what I’m thinking about play with or against that genre?” I like those parameters.
FIFFE: The parameters of genre in general?
LATOUR: Yeah, and when I was younger, I never thought that I’d feel that way. There’s a certain point when you start telling stories, you sometimes look at genre stuff as formula. To me, I think it shows what kind of nerd I am because I love the deconstruction and reconstruction of that stuff. Genre is so culturally pervasive at this point you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t get the gist of almost every kind of genre. People may not like a detective stories or superheroes, but they know what’s in it. To me, that’s what guides the process. It makes it easier than sitting down and writing about my thoughts and feelings in the raw. Genre gives me something to channel those things into, it helps me find context and hopefully some sort of objectivity.
FIFFE: What you’re describing is genre not as formulaic setbacks, but as a series of parameters and guidelines to work within.
LATOUR: Whether or not people admit it, they walk around with preconceived notions about things. Genre is nothing but preconceived notions. Some of the fun is peeling those away. It doesn’t mean that your assumptions weren’t correct in the first place, though. Those assumptions are like a key to a map.
FIFFE: So that’s basically how you handle writing.
LATOUR: Yeah. In terms of writing and drawing, I struggle answering the question about their differences because I don’t see much difference. Even when I draw stories that somebody else has written, I think about the writing first.
FIFFE: Well, sure, it’s ideally the same thing. It’s cartooning. But they have been separated to a large degree.
LATOUR: We talked about David Mazzucchelli earlier, and Miller and Mignola and what those three have in common is that when they draw a scene, the way somebody stands or the way the shot is composed or the quality of the line is as much part of the writing as what’s coming out of the character’s mouth.
FIFFE: That implies that when the writer and artist are the same person, a more direct and potent kind of work emerges. Whether the results are good or bad or whatever, it sprung from almost a purer source.
LATOUR: I’d like to believe that, but I don’t know if I’d like to bet my life on it. A lot of this is guesswork for me because I’ve done small things but I’ve yet to do a full blown book all by myself. But I don’t think that makes me or anyone not a “cartoonist.” Cartooning is an approach. It’s about being more than perfunctory.
FIFFE: That’s not to discredit collaborations in the slightest. There have been indisputably great collaborations that reach something that a solo act doesn’t.
LATOUR: Right, and for every one solo cartoonist that nailed it, there are many other books that go off the rails because honestly, you’re fighting twice the battle. Maybe it’s not necessarily harder, but I think cartooning is a compulsion. There are some stories that you could hand over to somebody else and it would still be great, but if you feel compelled to draw it then you should at least try it. I also think to be a cartoonist you don’t have to write and draw. You can draw other people’s strips and be a cartoonist. Wally Wood or Frank Quitely mostly work or worked from other people’s scripts, but there’s an authorship there. I also think you can be a writer that’s a cartoonist, who thinks like a cartoonist and doesn’t actually draw. All that said, I found my biggest leaps as an artist came when I tried new things, or tried to take on new parts of the process. I’ve done all the different jobs separately and with this new book, Loose Ends, that’s the first time I’ve written for somebody else to draw. I also lettered it.
FIFFE: You’ve had some practice doing that. Didn’t you letter some of your Expatriate issues?
LATOUR: I lettered the last two issues. It’s been invaluable to pick that skill up because now when I do a layout, I show my editors where the balloon placements are.
FIFFE: It’s so important, balloon placement.
LATOUR: It’s one of the most important things and so easy to do. It’s essential to the layout of the page.
FIFFE: When you see poor lettering, it’s pretty obvious they don’t care.
LATOUR: No, they don’t care and it’s one of my pet peeves. Sometimes it looks like it was pasted on like an afterthought with no consideration for the art or how the eye follows the narrative. My theory is that readers follow the balloons. Everything else, when it’s really good, the reader just kind of takes it all in. They may think about it and observe it, but it doesn’t stop the story. If you’ve done your job as a storyteller, you reach this gray area where you’re propelling the person through it.
FIFFE: It’s the perfect balance of words and pictures and the reader can’t tell. Is that the gray area you’re getting at?
LATOUR: Yeah, and how that relates to all of the jobs is that if you’ve done all the jobs and you at least have an appreciation for all the jobs then you have a greater understanding of what they need to achieve harmony. You may not be great at all of them, I’m certainly not great at all the jobs but I know how hard it is to be a colorist, to flat pages, or to ink. I know what it’s like to deal with an artist. I think it makes for better books and better collaborations and relationships. I’m never gonna get on the phone and say that “my goddamn colorist is such a lazy fucking asshole” because I’ve actually done that job. Unless I think he is… wow, I just totally contradicted myself. [laughter]
FIFFE: Take a step back.
LATOUR: You know what I’m saying. I think you know what I’m saying.
FIFFE: If you’re going to criticize something, it’s better to know what you’re talking about, to be informed, to have an understanding of what goes into that thing you’re criticizing.
LATOUR: Right, exactly.
FIFFE: But a critic doesn’t necessarily have to be a cartoonist in order to take apart the components and seeing if they work or not.
LATOUR: I think criticism is important. If anything it keeps people that are too inside honest. Otherwise, you end up making stuff that’s only for other creators. The benefit of criticism is that it’s an outside point of view. For them, it’s entertainment, not because something’s escapist material but it’s like you or I taking in music or film. We don’t do that stuff. It’s a form of storytelling, but it’s different than what we do. Same thing with a critic, they write a review, they’re telling a story. They make observations through a linear narrative, whether they know it or not.
FIFFE: There is a difference between criticism and calling up an editor yelling “This cover sucks!”
LATOUR: Of course, but I’m an emotional dude, a really combative one sometimes, and that knowing what I know about doing the different jobs… that experience has allowed me to step back and tell myself, “You’re being a dick. You need to calm down.” [laughs] I haven’t had too many bad instances. I haven’t had any terrible ones.
FIFFE: Not yet. You have time.
LATOUR: Ha! Exactly. I feel like you always take leaps of faith. It’s a scary feeling, to hand a page over to someone else to draw no matter how matter how good they are. You can usually tell when one guy trusts the other. You can tell with writers when there’s less exposition, less dialogue, or quiet moments, or moments where it plays to the artist’s strengths.
FIFFE: It’s to serve the narrative, not show how clever you can be.
LATOUR: Right, and the writers I respect the most are the ones whose voices become the character’s voices. [Good writers] know when to step back themselves and let the character’s voice be clear. The thing I hate in most comics is when the writer is giving a speech.
LATOUR: I tend to have that problem, too, though. Fortunately, I haven’t had much stuff published. I do think it’s a hard thing to deal with because you get rewarded for having “a voice.” For a lot of people, the easiest way to develop or make that voice clear is to write what’s on their mind, where basically every sentence from every character is the writer having an argument with himself or espousing a view. The best guys know when to step back and let things be things other than themselves. So if they write a racist asshole, they write it as the racist asshole as opposed to the writer’s views on rednecks.
FIFFE: What about art-wise?
LATOUR: Same thing with the art. A lot of guys are super talented and can do anything with a pen. Their facility is so great that they don’t consider what they need. Much like a writer forcing his “voice,” they force their POV or their style on the story. But like the guys we were talking about earlier, the cartoonists, they tend to find the material that fits them. Darwyn Cooke’s not playing around with stuff he doesn’t feel comfortable doing. New Frontier may be superheroes, but it feels more like pulpy stuff.
FIFFE: You mean he’s not trying to shoehorn his stuff on any old assignment he gets.
LATOUR: Yeah, and that’s not always the easiest thing when you’re trying to get work as mainstream artist, you’re gonna get thrown on books that you don’t wanna do. Or you’re gonna have to take a couple of jobs that you’re not in love with but you’d have to find what you love about them and I think that helps. Part of that is finding what the story needs rather than always showing off. Sometimes I think I do both, I err in showing off too much as much as I err in laying back too much. It’s hard because I believe people tend to value sweat equity because it’s easy to recognize.
FIFFE: Absolutely. If it looks like you put in hard work, they appreciate it more.
LATOUR: They think that hard work equals time spent drawing, physically, or rather the amount of lines that make it into the final drawing.
FIFFE: They don’t consider the amount of time spent thinking about a page.
LATOUR: Yes. And it’s hard not to get caught up in that. There are of course exceptions…usually stunning ones but I believe that in general, that train of thought makes artists myopic. Concerned with things that are superficial, less aware of the big picture. The only way I think I can have a career that lasts hopefully into my death is to figure out how to internalize most of the work. More time thinking and less time drawing. Hopefully you build up your drawing tools, that way you can handle most things while keeping your mind sharp. This is a physically demanding job. Sitting at a desk for 12 hours a day is a really tough thing on the body. If your body weakens, it’s only a matter of time before your mind goes.
FIFFE: Wait a minute… only 12 hours? [laughter] Clearly it’s a hobby.
LATOUR: It’s hard to make people get that. I had a conversation once with a comic shop clerk who has since become my friend. We got into a sort of argument when he made the comment, “These artists who miss deadlines are so damn lazy. When I go to work, I punch the clock and I’m at work. If I say I’m gonna work 40 hours a week I’m gonna work 40 hours.” And I was like, just to draw a page, even the fastest artist in the world has to sit there and really concentrate on what he’s doing during that period of time. There’s not much daydreaming at the cash register.
FIFFE: Going back to thinking more and drawing less, you’d eventually know how to simply draw things from memory, allowing you more time to think and not have to constantly reference.
LATOUR: But you’ve got do your research. As far as reference goes, you can take a few minutes to go online and look something up. It’s not like in the ’60s where dudes used to have chastity locks on their research cabinets. There’s a story I heard where Joe Kubert bought a file cabinet from one of the old Mad guys for more than a house. “Here’s a thousand photos of people taking dumps.” You never know when you’re gonna need that, I guess and where were you gonna get it otherwise?
FIFFE: I’m glad Joe Kubert got a lot of mileage out of that particular file. [laughter]
LATOUR: No shit. Could you imagine what that must’ve been like? It really makes you cut some of these old artists a break. Guys like Frank Robbins who had to draw planes out of their heads and did it spectacularly.
FIFFE: I know, I know. I can barely draw a plane while looking at one.
LATOUR: Could you imagine sitting at your studio and being told you gotta draw a cougar? You had to drag your sorry ass to the library to try and track down a photo of a cougar, or go to the zoo. So I think you can do what you more or less need to do fairly quickly now. I sit down and look at all of the reference and I figure out how to abstract it. There’s always abstraction, even when it’s realistic.
FIFFE: I prefer seeing things abstracted in the artist’s style rather than have a portion of the art be obviously referenced.
LATOUR: Using a photo, though, there’s nothing wrong with that.
FIFFE: Well, for example, that Captain America story you drew obviously had some photo reference, but it was drawn in your style.
LATOUR: If it wasn’t it just wouldn’t work as well. Look, I can draw a car when there’s one in front of me, but when I have a fucking deadline I just want to get the essence of what I need. If the story needs a car to be drawn, to be cartooned and fully alive, I will draw it. If a car is just in passing and unimportant, then you can break out a photo. But even if you’re gonna trace it, you don’t trace it with the intent that you’re gonna show how good you can draw, because you’re not fooling anybody. Kyle Baker can trace well, but that’s because Kyle Baker can draw. I think the worst part of photo tracing is pretending that it’s not there, or taking credit for it. And if you’re gonna use it, use it to help the story. Done well, that abstraction of realism can lend credibility. Focus the reader where they belong instead of hanging them up on “whoa, that’s a bad ass drawing of a car”.
FIFFE: Fair enough.
LATOUR: We get a little too obsessed about that sweat equity. We want to be impressed by some guy’s facility. That can be misread, though. “Oh, look, he drew all that, he worked so hard.” What about putting a lot of thought into what was needed? Sometimes, a good drawing is the wrong choice.