Originally published in The Comics Journal 252, 2003.
I interviewed Ron Regé, Jr. in my living room in Brooklyn, NY, on Dec. 29, 2002. Ron has been making comics for 10 years, and has recently come into his own as a major cartoonist in his minicomics series, Yeast Hoist; a lengthy graphic novel, Skibber Bee Bye; and a perfect comic book called Boys. He has dubbed his work “cute-brut,” and others equate it with the Highwater Books aesthetic. Neither description is very helpful. Like most of the best cartoonists, Ron approaches comics as a medium for his own distinct artistic vision. He uses a deeply personal pictorial vocabulary (those lines, those faces, those panels, those noises) to make cartooned comics — not novels in comic form or anything else in comic form but rather pure comics as related to Charles Schulz as to Philip Guston. Ron’s work defies easy categorization; for me, right now, his work is among the best that any art form can offer.
DAN NADEL: Let’s start with aging. I wondered about getting older and why you occasionally note “I am 29” or “I am 30” in your comics.
RON REGÉ: I don’t always put how old I am. I think with “The Montclairian” it was because I was drawing it on my 30th birthday, so I put that in there. It’s just a shtick. Most cartoonists have them: “I sign my comic like this, or I do this unique thing all the time.” I made this decision that I always want to write when exactly I drew it and where I drew it.
REGÉ: I don’t know. Because I think it’s interesting. Because, for instance, I don’t live in Berkeley anymore, so I can go, “Look, I drew these all in Berkeley.” Now I’m writing “South County.” I like the sound of “South County, Rhode Island.” I’ll be there for a year. It’s just this form that I started. Other people do different things. It’s what I need and like to know about all records that I have.
NADEL: How old are you?
REGÉ: Just turned 33. It’s funny — I think coming from the rock-and-roll world, with bands and stuff like that, 33 would be kind of old to be looked at as “new.” People always think, “Oh, you’re not in your 20s doing this stuff?” Somebody was talking about how old Winsor McCay was when he started doing stuff. Segar was 45 when he started Thimble Theatre or something like that? [Segar was 25, actually.] Comics are different; it’s not until you mature some that you get really good at it. Practice. I do look at a lot of younger cartoonists, and sometimes kind of feel that there are some coming up now who are having their stuff printed too soon. I’m glad that I had ten years of minicomics. I’m going to do a book collection of some of that stuff, but I’m glad a lot of the stuff I did was only in minicomics form, and that tons of people won’t have to see it now. I got to a certain point, and then I did books. I definitely feel at a certain point, it got, and it’s only going to get, better. It’s hard to do. I don’t know, how old are writers when they usually, write their best books or stuff? Probably not very young. I guess it totally depends. There’s no way I feel bad about it. I definitely feel like I’ve got a lot more time; in 20 years I could be doing my best comics. I definitely had to make a decision. I literally decided to dedicate myself to doing comics first, as opposed to anything else, creatively.
NADEL: When was that?
REGÉ: I think it was after I did Dum Dum Posse.
NADEL: That was 1996?
REGÉ: Yeah, but I drew it in ’94-’95. It took me two years to get it done and it’s only 50 pages. I thought, “Why did this take me two years?” Because of how old I was, I guess, and what I was doing — I was like 23, 24 or 25, and I was just working, playing in bands. I was hanging out with people, drinking. You know, just doing all that stuff. I still didn’t really know that many other people doing comics. I was just figuring out the kind of dedication that you need to really do it. When I was done with it, I felt kind of bummed out, like, “I don’t have any more ideas. I’m going to quit comics. Maybe I’m not going to do comics any more.” So, I slowly built up to Skibber. As Skibber was being first written out, I was finally able to decide that I could easily continue doing this, and that I should make a decision and dedicate myself to it and not to fool around. I guess it’s a moment for everyone career-wise: “I’m not going to play drums in a band any more because of this.” I’ve done lots of music. I wondered for a long time, “Should I take both of them seriously?” And now, I’m not taking music that seriously. I can’t. I can only do just one thing seriously. Music’s a fun hobby. I’ll do it for fun, but not at the expense of comics.
NADEL: Where did that dedication come from? Was there a certain amount of success that you felt when you got through Skibber, that you found a voice or —
REGÉ: I think it was more a decision based on knowing that I always wanted to make art and not knowing which art form I wanted to choose. Feeling like I needed to find the perfect one for myself. It’s really hard when you’re like, “Do I play keyboards? Am I a painter? Am I going to make up my own medium?” I was always, I guess, a little uncomfortable with comics, because every little minicomic of mine was a completely different thing. I wasn’t sticking to the normal format and didn’t have “characters.” I wasn’t doing Hate. I didn’t have the Bradleys. I wasn’t creating Love and Rockets-type stuff. I guess when I was doing Skibber and it was done I thought, “This is my Ed the Happy Clown. This is my Velvet Glove.”
NADEL: It’s funny that you think of it that way. “This is my Ed the Happy Clown,” or “This is my Love and Rockets” or whatever, because you’re an artist — in a sense those books are genres. You can choose different roads.
REGÉ: The first big story that someone does changes them. A lot of cartoonists haven’t done their big story. Do they have to?
NADEL: Do they need to?
REGÉ: I don’t know, and I’m not going to say that people have to. But from my experience, I think everyone should try, because of the way it made me feel about doing stuff and spending that much time on it. I had to make a big decision between serializing it and not serializing it. Not that I really had that option — Tom [Devlin] said he would publish the book, and I knew that Tom and I had been friends and that if I put two years work into it, Tom would publish what I did. I guess if it had sucked he wouldn’t have — I don’t know. I gave it to him; he didn’t say anything.
NADEL: You serialized it a bit in the various minicomics.
REGÉ: Yeah, but I knew that only a few people would see those. They were done first, anyhow. I didn’t know that Skibber was going to be that long, initially. I mean, I don’t know who would have published it, so it doesn’t matter, but if I had decided to have it come out in, what is it, 13 chapters? I do have a reason for not doing that. Which is, I don’t like the idea — at least with my own comics — of something that’s a continuation of something else. Comics where you get to the end and, all of a sudden, “Oh, it’s on page 27! I guess I’ll have to wait three months until I can find out what happens next!” I would only do that if the chapter actually concluded; if each chapter could be read as a separate item, as well as part of the whole. I don’t fault anyone for doing things that way, it’s just wrong for me. In the ’90s, I didn’t know that many people who read comics. I went all through the ’80s and most of the ’90s not having any friends who made comics, and not really even knowing anyone who read comics. I had no idea. I still, to this day, don’t understand who it is that buys these things who isn’t trying to do them themselves. I guess in the end, a lot of the stories in Skibber are little individual chapters, but if you read most of them by themselves, you’d be like “Who cares?”
GETTING INTO SKIBBER
NADEL: Let’s just get into Skibber since we’re on the topic. Tell me about it.
REGÉ: Well, I was thinking about Skibber and I was thinking about standing characters that I’d made up recently. I started doodling that elephant one day and I thought, “Who is this elephant? I kind of like this guy.” Somewhere I have the very first one that I did. It was just a phone doodle of the elephant. They all just reveal themselves to me. I do a couple of doodles, and it’s suddenly like, “This character’s personality is like … this.” The first one I did with the elephant is really obvious: I am the elephant checking out some girl at a club. And then following her home and stalking her and — oh no, that’s not me! [Laughter.] That was the first one that I did with the elephant. There’s one before that with the mouse girl and the Lik Liks: the one where they build the little machine. The elephant wasn’t in the minicomic version of that one. Then, I just took it from there and let the characters half reveal themselves to me. I did what I think lots of people do when you have a zillion different ideas. I almost always come up with comics that are three or four pages long, very small ideas. I have a small idea about this person: They get up, they go make a sandwich, for example. I just took a whole bunch of them that I had, switched them around. This is demystifying Skibber; I had a zillion different stories and I just wrote them all down together, thinking, “I could use this story, and I could use these stories in here as well. I would like to do a historical story … How can I weave this all together? I’ll have these bugs. OK, so I’ll have these bugs and somehow the bugs weave everything together.” Then, eventually I was like, “Oh, the mice live in this house!” Then I just got more into it, thinking, “What is the house? What does the house look like?” As far as like what happens at the end, I don’t remember exactly where I came up with those ideas.
NADEL: The various strands are held together by what seems to be a theme that runs through a lot of the work; a search for things and missing things.
NADEL: The two parties — the elephant and the mice — are both looking for things. They each actually had found the things and they don’t realize they found them and so they just go right past each other.
REGÉ: Right. Actually, when I did a couple of the first minicomics, I showed them to my friend, Molly. I had done two or three chapters and I said to her, “I think I’m the elephant.” But I’m not really the elephant. She says, “Ron, they’re obviously all different parts of your personality and they’re all you.” When she said that, I was only halfway putting it all together, and that’s what allowed me to put the rest of it together. Because she had said that. I was just, “Oh it is! They’re all just different parts of me!”
NADEL: Well that’s the other thing about a lot of your work, the minis and Yeast Hoist especially: you’re frequently talking to yourself.
NADEL: I don’t know if you realize this, a lot of the work consists of internal monologues, such as Boys —
REGÉ: Yeah. Maybe it’s my own self-therapy. Maybe that’s why I do comics.
NADEL: Yeah, but it’s also similar to the Robert Boyd pamphlet, Ron Regé and His Predecessors, which made a good point in relating your work to Philip Guston, because Guston was similarly autobiographical in that the paintings were sort of the stuff in his studio, which was the stuff in his head, and he was drawing it. I wondered about Skibber in the same way: These various themes that you’re pulling together that are linked by some over-arching feeling of “searching/missing” woven together with these characters not even talking really, because most of it is silent.
REGÉ: Yeah, yeah. It was weird deciding that they’re not going to talk. I don’t even remember how I decided that, exactly. But I think I just looked at the characters and knew, “This character doesn’t talk. They’re not going to talk.”
NADEL: How literal were you feeling about the symbol of the elephant, the gold miners seeing the elephant?
REGÉ: I think I had most of the story done when I came across the whole “seeing the elephant” thing, and the concept of “seeing the elephant” was so cool. The fact that I was doing this comic with an elephant, I thought, “I have to put this in here, somehow.”
NADEL: From the reader’s point of view, “seeing the elephant” seems like the central motif, because it comes as a separate chapter in the middle of the book.
REGÉ: Yeah, I had already had a lot of the book done actually, but it just seemed so perfect, so I just stuck it in there. [Nadel laughs.] And it was historic, and … I had never done any kind of historic or journalistic comic before. Nothing like that and I had always wanted to try.
NADEL: Which you later ended up doing quite a bit.
REGÉ: Yeah, and I want to do more of it, somehow. I kind of want to take stuff like what I did for Drawn and Quarterly and just fuck it up even more and get more abstract with that kind of stuff. I’m not sure exactly how I’m going to do that.
NADEL: Let’s talk about the ending of Skibber.
REGÉ: OK. Which ending?
NADEL: The first ending, where the mice immolate themselves, martyr themselves.
REGÉ: [Sarcastically] “Why did they do that!?” [Laughter.]
NADEL: No, no, no. The book goes missing and they don’t know what to do with themselves. What is it that drives the martyrdom?
REGÉ: I’m not sure exactly. I think that I’ve always had some fascination with torture, martyrdom and S&M type of stuff. I don’t know if it’s something that I’m personally interested in — I’ve never looked into it. I don’t want to go into that world. But there’s something about it that definitely fascinates me, so that’s kind of why I put it in there. I’ve always been interested in self-destruction, definitely.
NADEL: What do you mean?
REGÉ: Whatever psychosis you have, things that you do that are bad for yourself, whether it’s smoking or drinking or staying up too late or hitting yourself in the head. I never got to, but I always wanted to make these videos like that Black Flag record cover for “Damaged.” I wanted to make videos of people putting their heads through windows and just like ripping themselves up and stuff like that. It was this artistic desire that I had and I never exactly realized. Hitting your head against the wall, things like that.
NADEL: Your early style fits that much better as an all-out gonzo style. I can see where it comes from.
REGÉ: I think if I was a little bit more of an unhinged or crazier person maybe I would put cigarettes out on myself. I’ve never done any of that kind of stuff but I always felt like I was on the edge of doing stuff like that. So maybe I want to. [Laughter.]
NADEL: What’s disconcerting about the scene is it’s drawn in your clean —
REGÉ: — cute style. Yeah. Right.
NADEL: Well, it’s not cute, but it’s a clean style.
REGÉ: Right, right. As opposed to …
NADEL: As opposed to your earlier style, which is more fitting. Which is sort of all out — a little Sandlin in there and Mike Diana and all that sort of stuff.