STUMP: The gap between your early formalist comics and Jar of Fools is very big.
LUTES: Yeah. Mm-hm.
STUMP: Did you consciously decide not to use that approach anymore?
LUTES: I think all along I didn’t want to use that approach. [Laughs.] I think what all my different approaches were were just attempts. I was trying to get at something. And so I was taking these different tacks to see what I could find. And Jar of Fools was my first concrete step towards the thing I was looking for.
So a lot of that earlier formal stuff felt very empty to me while I was doing it. It was fun, but it was just clever; it wasn’t nourishing.
STUMP: It doesn’t have the same sort of humanistic element that Jar of Fools does; the characters in those comics are just sort of there. There’s almost a 180-degree difference, in that you don’t have any sort of concern or interest invested in these characters. Which there really wasn’t. I mean, some of them don’t even have — their faces are just blank. You know what I mean? [Lutes laughs.] I found that really interesting, that your work is sympathetic to humans in general but if you look at what you were doing previously, it’s almost the exact opposite, whether you were conscious of it or not.
LUTES: Yeah. No, I wasn’t conscious of it, I hadn’t thought about it, but that’s very true.
STUMP: They don’t have eyes.
LUTES: And in a sense, that’s a portrait of how I think of the post-modern comics of that time. They’re like inhuman. There is no face, and they’re pure id or pure stylistic exercise. On some level, I’m responding to that. That style I came up with was actually a very self-conscious effect to sort of merge Kaz and Peter Bagge. Even though content-wise it really doesn’t bear out, I was aware of Peter Bagge’s work and I liked it, and I really loved Kaz’s work. I very specifically set out to draw in a clear, slick art style.
STUMP: I’m curious as to what you think the heights of the medium are, and how your work sort of has a relationship with that, with what you’re trying to do. My hunch is that your approach would be different than we would see in your favorite comics. Is there a difference between your approach to the medium, and the approach of the creators you think are the best?
LUTES: The differences? Probably the main difference is narrative density.
STUMP: If you had to give me your handful of …
LUTES: My saints?
STUMP: A handful of examples of the finest.
LUTES: To define the medium at its finest, I would have to say, writing — which may not mean using words, but the structuring of the comic — and drawing are essential. I’m not attracted to comics purely for visual feel. I feel betrayed when I read a comic that’s really well-drawn and attractive but there’s nothing going on.
Chester Brown’s stuff was mind-blowing to me when I first encountered it, and I think he has taken the medium in a very important direction, evolutionarily. I think that the way he slowed down time in his comics, stretched out the pace of events, caused a sort of subconscious epiphany in me. Ben Katchor has brought a level of narrative or poetic density to comics that hadn’t previously existed. In “Julius Knipl” and The Jew of New York his approach to using words and pictures is all about the space between the things, which is where the soul of comics resides. I can think of no other examples of comics as rich as his. The relationships between the words and pictures and panels exist regardless, but most people who write and draw comics don’t really try to explore or maximize the use of that closure. Ben Katchor is to my mind the person who has done it the best effect. Gone the deepest. So in that sense he’s a really incredibly top-ranked guy to me.
Who else … ?
LUTES: Yeah. Yeah. Mazzucchelli. I think that Rubber Blanket was an eye-opening step, a signal that things could begin to move to a new place. A really interesting step into terra incognita. He was attempting to invest a depth in his stories that had not attempted before. They felt like the comics equivalent of prose short stories.
STUMP: They have an epiphanal effect.
LUTES: Yeah, yeah. “Dead Dog” I think is my favorite, and it’s the least polished. The other “serious” stories he did for Rubber Blanket feel very structured, very consciously created and wholly sculpted. But “Dead Dog” was rougher around the edges. It’s more evocative to me. I think the shape of the other stories is more apparent, and they’re really good stories, but the great thing about “Dead Dog” is that there are things you don’t understand about it; it’s suggestive, more of a mystery. That’s part of why I like it.
STUMP: I can kind of see some parallels between your stuff and Katchor’s, but on the surface other cartoonists have a very different approach to drawing comics than you do. You can see their hand in all their lines, and it’s not about this sort of distillation. I’m wondering why, when you see their approach as being sublime, why you would feel the need to approach the drawing so differently.
LUTES: Well, back to the example of Peter Bagge and Kaz: I have looked at other artists and attempted to emulate them. But in the case of these people — Brown, Katchor, Mazzucchelli — I don’t look at them and attempt to do what they’re doing, I look at them and see something that I am already trying to do.
When I saw Mazzucchelli’s work, I didn’t look at it and say, “Oh my God. This is so great. I want to do this.” I looked at it and said, “Yes.” Confirmation. This is proof of what I sense exists. With Chester Brown it was more of an actual revelation. It was like somebody showing me something utterly new. And then I think because I encountered Mazzucchelli and Katchor later, their work corroborated what Chester Brown had already proved was possible.
STUMP: When you mention Katchor, it does seem that there’s a very specific relationship between his matching of text and picture, and what you’re trying to do. The idea of trying to create a kind of poetic effect by juxtaposing words and pictures that might not have much of a relation to each other. There’s a similarity there.
LUTES: Yeah, yeah. I totally agree. That’s the stuff to me. The drawing to me is incidental. How a comic is drawn is not terribly important to me, unless the drawing is detracting from what’s relevant. Although I completely love the way certain people draw. Like Ben Katchor or Chester Brown. I love their drawings. But the main appeal or interest to me is how the comic works in its entirety. How the different parts fit together. How they interact. I find that much more interesting and appealing than the drawing style. I’m sure that the way Katchor writes and constructs his comics has had a huge effect on my own work.
STUMP: Even if it’s not explicitly apparent.
LUTES: Yeah. Even though I don’t use the same style.
STUMP: It’s the spirit of it.
LUTES: It is the spirit, and his understanding of the way that a word and a picture can interact that I find inspiring. I think of the word and the drawing as being of the same stuff.
STUMP: The line of the words and the letters is exactly the same line as representing the outlines of the figures.
LUTES: Exactly. Certainly. It’s representation as opposed to expression. The less expression I put into a line, the less personal emotion I put into a line, the more chance it will be read and projected upon by the reader.
STUMP: Do you actually use the same pen for lettering and drawing?
STUMP: Well, then, that makes a lot of sense. Spiegelman described it as picture-writing. Comics are a form of picture-writing, and when you move away from that, you move away from the strengths of comics. Did you ever experiment with drawing comics with brush, and then return to the pen because of that effect?
LUTES: Well … yeah. The pen’s partly a matter of convenience, and partly to make the writing and the drawing “feel” closer to each other. I work more expressively when I paint or when I’m working in color or doing some other kind of work. But when I’m working in pen and ink, I tend to be more refined and clear. So the brush stuff I’ve done has exhibited that classic comic book degree of control, perfected by the likes of Charles Burns or Dan Clowes. A really meticulous, obsessive kind of approach. And that was kind of maddening, even though my drawing looks very kind of cold and anal, it feels warm to me. There’s lots of room for error nobody would notice.
STUMP: When you’re talking about a Lynda Barry-esque approach to drawing, where it’s very expressive and very direct — it’s almost the antithesis of your approach to drawing comics, trying to distill the drawing to the point where the creator’s hand isn’t as evident. Or where the thing being represented is very iconic. Does that sound like something that you’d describe your drawing as?
LUTES: Somebody once described my drawing style as “journalistic,” and that seems to fit. When I draw, I think my unconscious approach is to sort of put down the facts as I imagine them, as straightforwardly as I can, unobstructed by any sort of overly expressive or flamboyant visual style. Although obviously, in every single decision as to what goes on the page, my personality is apparent. The goal I think is to have the drawing do its job and not get in the way or draw too much attention to itself.
STUMP: Is your distilled, “journalistic” style an attempt to avoid the problem of tone that comes with a specific style of drawing? Maybe an example of what I mean is Seth — I think that he’s a great writer and a great artist, but sometimes there’s a weird tension between his particular style and what he wants to say.
LUTES: Well, I think he does have a very illustrative style. He does do a lot of commercial illustration work, and his style seems to have been influenced by an older generation of single-panel cartoonists or illustrators, not serial or sequential cartoonists. I think relative to my visual vocabulary, Seth is speaking a language the visual aspect of which feels more like illustration.
STUMP: I just think the style of the drawing has to affect the tone of the story, obviously.
LUTES: Absolutely. I don’t think drawing in comics shouldn’t be carefully considered. Quite the opposite, since it’s all about the words and images operating in concert. I just think it shouldn’t be the paramount consideration, as is the case in most of the comics you encounter.
STUMP: But what you’re doing, you’re saying that your style of drawing works as much as possible to eliminate that problem. If the drawing is more “journalistic,” it’s a little bit more open, the reader can attach his own interpretation of it, a little bit more than…
LUTES: … somebody who has a more stylized …
STUMP: Yeah. “Stylized” is the perfect word. “Stylized” versus the …
LUTES: … more objective. It’s all subjective obviously. Everything’s subjective.
STUMP: All these words are lies, but [laughter] we have to use them.
LUTES: Relatively speaking, my drawing leans more toward the objective. It’s interesting to me that we keep coming back to someone like Ben Katchor, who has an incredibly idiosyncratic drawing style. But what he’s done, the stories he’s telling with that style, it works. The words and pictures are both coming from the same place.
I feel like that comes from an understanding and love of comics or an ability to speak in the language of comics as opposed learning to write and learning to draw. I feel like that if you’re coming from that basic place, where you understand comics, and that’s what you’re trying to make, then the writing and the drawing will tend to complement each other. Tend to work together. Because you’re speaking with both of them. I think you can only develop the skills independently to a point. I cannot write something in prose and then hand it over to an artist. All the work I do involves pictures. Little tiny thumbnail drawings of how the thing goes together. And they completely interact with each other in the process of writing. I think that that’s true of my favorite cartoonists. Whether or not they actually work that way concretely, internally they seem to understand the language that way.
STUMP: Katchor is a good example of someone who avoids the narrow perspectives that you said comics have sort of succumbed to. It’s about a world, or a city, and the things in that city, not necessarily about his own narrow experiences.
LUTES: Yeah. That relates also. Although in a sense the Julius Knipl stuff is about his narrow experiences, living in an interesting neighborhood in New York City. But it just so happens that his “narrow experience” is vastly different than that of the majority of people who create or read comics, which makes it by default interesting. But on top of that, Julius Knipl’s ruminations are catalytic, transformative, they can make the attentive reader consider the world in a different way.
STUMP: You were singling out Crumb at one point as someone you admired a lot, but that kind of embodied that other approach. Maybe I’m not going to be able to re-hash that observation, but I think you said that Crumb sort of represented what you thought comics’ problems were.
LUTES: I think mainstream comics represent the problems with comics. I think Crumb doesn’t represent a problem, but he personifies an aspect of alternative comics. He is that aspect of comics. Which is pure … you know. It’s pure self … it’s like reflection, even though I don’t feel like there’s a lot of reflection going on. But it’s pure …
STUMP: We were talking about Katchor, and the difference between his strip and his book. I wonder if there’s a similar relationship between Jar of Fools as a strip and Berlin as a book. Because originally you created Jar of Fools as these single self-contained installments. But the interesting thing is that they’re not really meant to be read that way. And obviously having to do something that’s self-contained has to carry over into your working methods just in general, into Berlin or whatever, so that you see each page as a sort of a single installment.
LUTES: I think the way I’ve come to think of it, every panel is an installment. It’s a self-contained part, it’s concretely self-contained. It’s an outlined box. And you have to put things inside of it. So when you’re dealing with comics you’re dealing with a series of containments, or units, building blocks that you have to make things from.
One of the great things about print comics — which some see as a limitation, and McCloud even calls a “prison,” but which I consider an interesting aspect — is that you’re dealing with pages. In a book, the text flows. You write the novel, and that novel is typeset and published, the text is just flowed through the pages. The nature of text is you just read it, it’s a continuous stream through the book, you become unaware of where a page ends and a page begins unless you get to the end of a chapter and you glimpse the blank space that telegraphs the fact that a narrative chunk is coming to a close. Facing pages don’t play a part really. Chapters usually begin on a right-hand page, but the concessions of prose to the book form are few.
But in comics, the book and its pages are undeniably parts of the structure. You have a physical structure you’re working with. I took some classes in school that kind of opened my mind to that idea. Artists’ bookmaking classes. These components — the page, the tier, the panel — are somewhat analogous to, sentences or paragraphs; the analogue of a comics panel in film is the “shot.” They are the basic building blocks. So, in order to maximize my use of the tools I have at my disposal, I need to take the potential use and function of these building blocks into account. To the best of my ability, I need to consider them. With Jar of Fools, because I was doing it one page at a time as a weekly strip, every page has a certain degree of narrative containment that, hopefully can also act as a thought-provoking non-sequitur when taken out of context.
STUMP: By narrative containment you mean there’s sort of a resolution.
LUTES: Yeah. A general resolution. Which is just one step up from a daily gag strip, where you have four panels to make the resolution. The difference being that it wasn’t funny. [Laughter.] And I had a page. One unit within which I could make a statement or try get across an idea. Generally, my pages tend to convey either a theme or an idea or a notion or a feeling. I try to have each page hold a contained idea, although that’s a little less applicable in Berlin. And each tier tends to be a component. Panels, obviously.
STUMP: This may be getting too much into the minutiae, but when you’re creating Jar of Fools as single pages, and then they’re printed as part of a two-page spread, there’s going to be almost unintended effects on the reader — because you mentioned before that, for the sake of suspense or whatever, you might want to hide certain things until you turn the page. Because when you open up a two-page spread, you instantaneously see everything that happens. Obviously that’s something that’s specific to comics, as opposed to a film, where you have no chance of seeing what happens before it happens.
LUTES: Yeah, right. Anything that’s on a right-hand — or recto in bookmaking lingo — page, which would be an odd-numbered page, broadcasts as soon as you turn the previous page. It’s the nature of comics that you’re going to pick up any visuals on the right-hand page before you get to it. The danger being that the future of the story may be broadcasted before the reader gets to it.
STUMP: Are there any positive aspects to that problem?
LUTES: I haven’t found them. [Laughter.] I’m sure there’s a really interesting way to make use of that. But so far, it’s just a handicap, because you have to consider it. On one hand, you can argue if you’re doing that in the first place, if you’re trying to surprise the reader in the first place, you’re manipulating them anyway. So you might as well have it be right out there [laughter] rather than deal with it on your own. It’s definitely a pitfall when I’m structuring a story, one I can’t always avoid.
I think that in the creation of Jar of Fools I was conscious of which pages were going to be on what side. In fact, at least in one instance in that book, there’s a page turn that is the equivalent of a door opening. The page turn is essential, in that it becomes the door opening. It couldn’t happen at the end of a left-hand page, because then you wouldn’t have the page become the door. So I think I was conscious of at least some of the page spreads that would end up occurring in the collected book.
STUMP: So if print has the self-imposed limitation of the page, and McCloud is always talking about how technology will eventually liberate us from this page … do you see this as a bad or a good thing? Mostly bad? Because it seems like the effect of the technology would be to give primacy to the panel rather than the page.
LUTES: Oh, yeah. It would. It would.
STUMP: You wouldn’t need to have this immediate juxtaposition, you could just sort of do panels, panels, panels, panels, instead of pages of panels.
LUTES: You could have a panel at a time.
STUMP: That would give you some sort of creative control over the idea of page prematurely revealing what’s happening, but it would take away all of the unintended benefits that the design of the page has.
LUTES: Right. And that aspect isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I have become comfortable with and enjoy the limitations set up by pages in a book. And one thing that’s funny about thinking about e-comics [Stump laughs] or whatever you want to call them …
STUMP: Oh, God. Did you just coin that?
LUTES: I’m sure it’s been coined. It’s the first time I’ve said it, but I’m sure Scott’s all over it.
STUMP: If I have to hear that …
LUTES: Oh, come on. “E-commerce.”
STUMP: There’s something wrong about it.
LUTES: For me the biggest problem with e-comics would be that the medium is a lot like television, in that a multiplicity of “content sources” are all viewed through the same organ, the computer screen. Web TV will close that gap entirely. The result is that a thing viewed on a screen has no more weight or import, asks for no more consideration, than any other thing viewed through that screen. I can open my word processor program, watch streaming video, read an e-comic, but since they’re all viewed through the same organ, no one of them has any more significance than any other.
STUMP: The significance is the act of viewing through the portal.
LUTES: It’s like TV. When you see news on TV, even if it’s live, which is somehow supposed to imply it’s more “real,” you are distanced from it infinitely. One channel has the breaking story of a sniper on a rooftop downtown, the next channel is Friends. The difference between your distance from each of those things, viewed through a television set, is minimal. The same is true of everything you look at onscreen.
STUMP: Let me ask you about the group of cartoonists that you started the workshop thing with. You come to Seattle, meet all these different cartoonists, and informal gatherings became meetings …
LUTES: The meeting thing, that was actually somebody’s idea — James [Sturm] or Ed [Brubaker] or Dave Lasky. When we started that group, we were very consciously starting a peer review group where we would look at each other’s work and talk about it critically.
STUMP: How did that affect your work? If you had never done that, would your work be different?
LUTES: Uh … no. [Laughs.] Right now, looking back, I can’t say that it would. But the work I’ve done since then might not exist at all. I think the experience affected me personally in that it inspired me to feel excited about working. It didn’t affect the content or the style of what I did, but it gave me the energy to do it. Because it was exciting to share, to share work with other people, and to talk about the ideas we found in the work with other people. There may have been minor things that people said about something I had done, which I would then incorporate or respond to. But overall, it had more of an effect on my outlook than on the work itself.
STUMP: One thing I asked you about a long time ago, and which you gave an interesting response to, was a discussion in the Journal about young cartoonists. There’s a quote from Gary’s interview with Pete Bagge, where Gary stated that he felt there was no clear uniting thread between this younger generation of cartoonists compared to previous generations. Where you get a sense of where they’re all coming from, or what their mission as a generation is. It’s always an illusion, you have to create this …
LUTES: Like any “ism.”
STUMP: Right. Here’s the quote about you: “He’s also an accomplished artist, but again, there’s just nothing about his approach, or any of these young guys’ approach where I could see you draw a line, where there’s a shift in attitude.” He concluded that there was a lack of cohesion among the younger group compared to the previous ones. And you seemed to think that was the entire point.
LUTES: Not lack of cohesion, but individuality of voice. I think the thing about that group of people was that everybody was approaching it from a very different angle, and telling a very different story. We had Hutch Owen, that Tom Hart did; True Swamp, that Jon Lewis was doing; I was finishing Jar of Fools; Megan Kelso was doing Girlhero; Jennifer Daydreamer was doing her amazing minicomics; Dave Lasky was doing Boom-Boom; Ed was doing Lowlife; James was doing, at that point, he must have been working on that stream-of-consciousness thing, Seam.
Everybody was creating very different work, and you could not draw connections between them. Really, you couldn’t. From drawing style to content to writing style, if you compare any of those comics, each of them is unique. The only shared trait is that uniqueness.
STUMP: Do you see this as a logical progression or outgrowth of the examples set by the group of cartoonists that came before?
LUTES: Absolutely, and to my mind, in our little corner of the comics world, it seemed to be the flowering of the medium, because it actually became about different ways of expression. It’s a point at which the evolution of comics as a medium in America — and I’m not trying to, like, aggrandize what we were doing in any way — but it felt to me like the medium to us was just a medium. We were using all of the pre-established conventions, but we weren’t referring to the history of it, or to anything about comics or comics culture — like so many of the previous generations had.
STUMP: A collective vision of what they were doing. In the undergrounds there’s such a cohesion of themes.
LUTES: Underground, and then after that, the response to undergrounds. The Hernandez Brothers are a perfect example: their work is very reliant on the pre-established culture of comics, soap operas, the punk scene, Mexican-American pop culture. Not that that approach is wrong or bad; their work just requires some foreknowledge of their references in order to be fully appreciated.
STUMP: But the whole predominance of craft [Lutes laughs] is something that people will also point to as saying, “Look at how craft has diminished.” Isn’t this an example of how things are going to the dogs?
I think from talking to Gary, I got the sense a while back that one of his problems with the younger generation, if we can keep calling it that, is that there’s a diminished attention to craft — he admired the sincerity of some of the work more than the execution of it. And it’s interesting that you’re a cartoonist who can be pointed to as a younger cartoonist who is a true craftsman, but you also have an appreciation for things that don’t necessarily have the same sort of virtues embodied in their mission.
LUTES: For one thing, I think there’s a definition of craft in comics which is incredibly limited, incredibly restraining.
STUMP: Tom Hart is a craftsman.
LUTES: Oh, there’s no question that Tom Hart is a craftsman. But you could not tell that to somebody who has the mainstream notion of what craft is.
Tom Hart, his craft is comics. It’s not drawing, which is what people are talking about when they talk about craft. They don’t see the medium itself as a craft to be mastered. And as a result, you have a lot of incredibly poorly-structured, badly put-together things that call themselves comics. Whereas somebody like Tom Hart, who not only has mastered this gestural expressive drawing style, but in fact, refines it and throws out drawings he doesn’t like that don’t match his vision. But in the constructing of the comic, he is really enacting his craft. And in that way, I’d say he’s a master craftsman.
And that’s where my craftsmanship resides, also. I don’t think I’m a very good draftsman. I can draw realistically, and people look at my drawings and say, “Oh, that’s a good drawing.” But compared to people who can really draw, I suck. And this isn’t false modesty, because I think I’m actually very good at the “engineering” side of comics; my real strength is in the assembly.
STUMP: But that’s the trap in the simplistic dichotomy of craft. And that’s why — I don’t know if you’ve ever paid attention to that debate about craft that James Kochalka started up, where he said craft is the enemy of expression — I see where he’s coming from.
LUTES: I certainly see where he’s coming from.
STUMP: It’s also a stupid articulation of that idea. Something like Jim Woodring, because he’s a tremendous craftsman is somehow not expressing himself is an absurd notion.
LUTES: Or any fine artist with classical training throughout history. Excuse me? I mean, yeah, the underlying thing that I think James is trying to get at that expression is paramount. And I’ll take marginally accessible genuine expression over highly-crafted bullshit any day of the week. There’s not a question in my mind that genuine expression is more important than craft. The thing about craft that IS really important, is that it is an essential tool for communication with a wider audience. People are simply more inclined to read a comic book that they perceive to be “well-drawn.” It’s more accessible to them.
That’s actually been the motivating force for me trying to improve my own drawing. It’s to get people to look at it. Not to say, “Look what I can draw,” or to show them how well I can draw. But the better my drawing is, the more people will be interested in looking at it. And that’s the pitfall that people who aren’t concerned with the craft of drawing, or think it’s bullshit: they’ll just have to be satisfied with a limited audience. It’s that simple. Which is fine, as long as they don’t complain about it.
STUMP: But Dilbert would be refutation of that assertion, to be honest.
LUTES: How’s that?
STUMP: Well, craft doesn’t play any sort of role in Dilbert.
LUTES: There’s a clarity there. That’s part of the craft.
STUMP: You know what I’m getting at, I didn’t maybe pick the right example. You can get a wide audience without a …
LUTES: But he is totally adhering to the craft of cartooning.
STUMP: People have argued the exact opposite.
LUTES: Oh, he can’t draw in the traditional sense, that’s for sure.
STUMP: That the writing is what drives the strip, and if you didn’t have the visuals you would lose nothing. Some people say.
LUTES: I disagree completely. You can have almost any visuals, but they would have to be as clear and as direct as the ones that are there. You might as well have a computer draw as stiff, I don’t care, it doesn’t make any difference. But if it was just the words, “He walks into cubicle. Sees Dogbert.” Or whatever, I’m sorry. It just doesn’t have the same impact as a comic strip. By keeping it clear and simple, you can run a circle around the craft of drawing. You can find the loophole by just staying that simple, and as long as you have at least a rudimentary understanding of the craft of comics — how to put those simple elements together — it’ll work. look at Bushmiller. Nancy looks like it was done on an old Mac. Or early Bob Kane Batman — My God, he couldn’t draw at all!
STUMP: So why won’t people who like Dilbert like John Porcellino?
LUTES: Because it’s not as easily digestible. It’s not as discrete a unit. It’s not a piece of candy.
STUMP: It’s more elusive, maybe.
LUTES: Dilbert’s just clever. That’s really all Dilbert is. Dilbert is just clever and funny. And people …
STUMP: … like that. [Laughter.]
LUTES: People like that.
John can be funny and sad and beautiful … John is making art. John is expressing something of his heart, something of his self, and Scott Adams is making junk food, making money off it while satisfying his desire to write clever, funny things.
STUMP: Isn’t there a point at which craft is inhibiting, where you become burdened by your own craft? Where you can’t change directions quite as easily because of the years of perfecting a technique.
LUTES: Oh, yeah. Yeah. If you feel the need to change directions.
STUMP: If you decide one day after you get done with Berlin that you’re just going to let loose and become a John Porcellino or a Gary Panter or a Tom Hart … it’s going to be a wrenching …
LUTES: I think in my case it might feel liberating. I think in my case, if I felt the need to do that, I could do it. If you look at the transition from “The Scratch Merchants” to Jar of Fools, the leap there is a pretty big one. And although I’ve gone back a little toward more detailed drawing in Berlin, I think I’ve been struggling to maintain the correct form for my expression. The most appropriate, the most natural, best one, for who I am and what it is I’m trying to express. I’ve been searching a long time in order to arrive at this stage, and I think I’ve found the right style of visual expression for what I want to say at this point. If when I finish Berlin I feel the need to go in a different direction, then I think I’ll be able to. I hope I’m not deluding myself with the notion that I feel open to change.
STUMP: Do you think that will happen?
LUTES: It’s impossible to say. There are so many things I want to do in comics; I’d love to write a comics novel in every established genre other than superheroes. I’d love to write a science-fiction, mystery, or horror comic, I’d love to do a western. I’d just love that. More historical fiction. That’s part of how I feel about the medium. I feel like there’s so many possibilities, places the medium hasn’t been taken, things that haven’t been expressed and ways in which to express things… in a way, I can enact all my frustration I feel with movies that I hate. “Oh my God, that was a terrible thriller, I’ll write a good thriller.” But there’s just not enough time to do that. [Laughs.]
STUMP: You’re definitely someone that sees a lot of movies. What do you bring from that to your comics, if anything?
LUTES: The basic vocabulary, or what basics of the cinematic vocabulary that can be usefully applied to comics.
STUMP: Anything you can specifically remember?
LUTES: Well, it’s all like the most basic stuff. Like the most Film 101 techniques of cutting and panning shots and establishing shots. Basic film vocabulary, which we Americans have all been trained to understand because we grew up in this culture. Which I use to good effect sometimes and poor effect other times. I really honestly think that the way I think about comics has everything to do with comics. Like the medium is unto itself.
I approach it and deal with it on its own terms. I take things from film or may take something I see in a book that I want to try and do with comics, but I think all of the interesting things I’ve done with comics have completely to do with playing around the medium itself. When I leave a word balloon empty. Maybe I saw that once in a comic, I’m not sure. But the effect of having a word balloon empty, which I’ve used a lot at this point, was something very particular to comics. You simply cannot achieve that same effect in another medium — I guess in film you could have somebody moving their lips and not saying anything — but the effect is very different because then you can try to read their lips. But when you have an empty word balloon, it’s like a whole other expression. It’s part of the specific mechanics of comics. And that’s the stuff that I find the most engaging.
I think more often I see a film that is inspiring because it uses film well. Like when I see a good Steven Soderbergh movie. I feel like he’s someone who really understands how to use film, how to evoke, to evoke rather than tell.
STUMP: One of the nicest sequences in Jar of Fools is a silent double-page spread in part two [opens book to page 88]. There had been dialogue up until this point, and then suddenly you insert a purely visual double-page spread. Was there something specific, was it an intuitive thing that you did?
LUTES: I think it was intuitive, but I think you’re probably right in pointing out that it has a lot to do with film technique. In my head I imagined it as a montage-type of scene like we’re all used to seeing onscreen, with some sound other than dialogue. Is that the one where one girl yells at the other girl, and you don’t really hear …
STUMP: In fact, I actually find that kind of confusing to be honest.
LUTES: The whole thing?
STUMP: That particular moment. I don’t know what’s going on there.
I think the thing that I’m confused about is the interaction … I still don’t know what going on with that.
LUTES: Well, previously the blond woman was upset that her girlfriend was sympathetic and friendly with Ernie, and here the girlfriend is looking into Ernie’s trunk which has been thrown outside. So the blond woman’s getting upset and jealous.
STUMP: I know you know what you’re trying to do in your head, but that’s pretty ambiguous.
LUTES: And by not having any words [laughs] it certainly leaves it pretty wide open, doesn’t it? Yeah, in that sense it’s not very successful.
STUMP: Well, as a whole I think this is successful in that it really creates a space — the removal of the words, it’s a nice effect. But that particular sequence really forces you to examine it.
LUTES: Because I’m trying to communicate something complicated.
STUMP: Yeah, yeah.
LUTES: Whereas otherwise it’s just moving environments and people.
STUMP: The fact that you only used that device once is maybe what gives it some of its real resonance. You can’t overuse things like that.
LUTES: Yes, definitely.
STUMP: Just the fact that every panel is the same size. This very formalistic, staccato rhythm. This is a perfect example of the absorption — when you turn the page, the immediate absorption and it hits you, and then you go into the individual panels.
LUTES: You’re already aware of the rhythm. And then when you go into that sequence, the awareness of that plays into how you read it. Yeah, I think you’re totally right. This was very instinctive; when I got to this point, I was definitely getting into the space and the pacing of it …
STUMP: The preceding sequence, on the other hand, where she’s dropping her hair into the water… that seems like it was influenced more by manga.
LUTES: Yeah, but I hadn’t looked at any at that point. I think I just arrived at some of the same visual techniques that manga artists use because they made sense. You mean, just because of the focusing …
STUMP: Exactly, because of the close-ups of the same moment in time. It’s not chronologically advancing the story. And again, you’re saying that these are all kind of instinctive decisions that you made.
LUTES: It was the joy of playing with what I could do.
STUMP: There’s a scene in Berlin that’s exactly like that, dropping something over on the bridge.
LUTES: There’s this weird thing going on with me and rivers.
STUMP: You have a bridge fetish.
LUTES: It’s not bridges, it’s rivers. Because in Berlin, Anna throws a statuette into the Spree. It’s weird. The thing is I grew up on a river. Missoula has a river running through it. In fact, A River Runs Through It [laughter], the book and the movie, are set in Missoula. I grew up playing on the river, spending a lot of time on the river. As far as metaphors, there’s some really obvious ones that I don’t want to go into.
There’s another thing that I did that had to do with a bridge … definitely a filmic sequence: fragments of imagery tightly edited into an action sequence. You splice together these pieces in your head. I abided by some very basic, strict rules when I would structure a page, one of which was that if there is a panel two or more tiers tall, never put it at the right side, because that confuses the reader. Always put it at the left, because they’ll read that first, and then the reader will read the next, topmost panel. Whereas, if you put a tall panel on the right, the reader will read the first tier, hit the panel, and then read the second tier, and hit the panel again. Which is unconsciously jarring or redundant if you’ve already read it.
STUMP: Of course.
LUTES: Here [page 122], I purposely put a tall panel on the right because I wanted the reader to hit it twice.
STUMP: That’s amazing. And I never would have realized that.
LUTES: And of course, I don’t want you to. I don’t want you to think about it. Here’s another example on page 138. Central panel, it doesn’t matter how many times you hit it, because it’s set up to read like a backdrop, a background environment of bills falling through the air. So in the first panel, the cash register is smashed — this is important, this comes first, obviously — and the other three panels are all occurring while the bills are falling, so it doesn’t matter how many times you hit that middle panel. It becomes the backdrop. And there’s a couple other places where I do something similar.
The thing is, I don’t want anybody to notice. I mean, of course I do, because then it’s like “Yes!” [Laughter.] But if it draws too much attention to itself, the effect is lost.
STUMP: I tend to try and think about stuff like that, but I never would have thought about that. That’s pretty cool. The one I am conscious of, and don’t know if you used this device in Jar of Fools, is the idea of grouping, where you have on the same tier, a panel that is broken up into panels that are exactly the same piece as a regular panel. Like these four panels. Then it would be a situation where any order is acceptable for these two panels. You can go down, or left or right. Any order.
LUTES: It wouldn’t matter.
STUMP: For example, if you showed someone going to the grocery store. Someone enters the grocery store, then you see five things that happen in the grocery store, that could happen in any order, it doesn’t matter necessarily. Then you’re sort of breaking up the insistence on linear sequencing.
LUTES: Yeah, definitely. And at that point you’re really working with the medium.
STUMP: It has nothing to do with film, it has nothing to do with literature, it’s comics.
LUTES: Exactly. There’s no equivalent to this in film. That movie Time Code broke the screen up into four different pieces, but the end result is utterly different; the quadrants can’t each be explored unless you watch the movie four times. The architecture of the page, and it really is like an architecture, with each of its little rooms, the way that you pass through those rooms is entirely specific to the page and the number of tiers on it, and the fact that we read from left to right, top to bottom.
Back to what you were saying about the perception that there didn’t seem to be anything really unifying our generation of cartoonists: There was a point at which Ed and Tom Hart — primarily Ed, I think — were trying to start a little “movement” he called New Hat.
STUMP: He was going to call it New Hat?
LUTES: It was partly tongue in cheek, but they were also partly serious. And I think that the desire was to say, “Look, we are doing something different.” And they recognized, to their credit — before anybody really put their finger on it — that there was something different happening in our circle of cartoonist friends.
STUMP: Why is there this feeling that this has been lost? Not just in Seattle, but in general? The sheer deadening, the practical realities of comics?
LUTES: It’s a combination of that, and the fact that comics take an enormous amount of time to produce. There are more good comics out now than ever, people continue to create really interesting, great comics. We were just lucky enough to all be together, all be mutually inspired.
STUMP: And maybe that sort of thing has a limited window of time.
LUTES: You can’t expect that to last. It was our little shared cultural moment and then it passed. The thing is that it all had a positive effect on us. And made us feel good about what we’re doing. In a way that was separate from the pre-existing subculture. And that’s probably what energized us and made us feel inspired; we could say, “We don’t have to be cynical.” We don’t have to relent or adopt this negative attitude, which seems to pervade. The underground, the post-underground, anti-establishment, anti status quo attitude.
STUMP: It’s not your concern.
LUTES: No. I mean, it’s fine. Fine for people who want to pursue it, but there comes a point at which, the point at which I realized I wasn’t interested in Hate anymore was…
STUMP: The emotion or the comic?
LUTES: The comic.
STUMP: Both! [Laughter.]
LUTES: Yes! Exactly.
STUMP: I find it interesting that Scott McCloud is so optimistic about the dissolution of the page, or the freedom from the page or print, but he sees your work as kind of embodying — when Jar of Fools came out, and McCloud was a huge supporter of it — he saw it as being representative of what we need more as far as comics go. Yet it’s so dependent on the arrangement of the page.
LUTES: Well, it’s not like he’s saying it shouldn’t exist now. [Laughs.] He’s an incredibly supportive, optimistic —
STUMP: Maybe a bit too optimistic sometimes? I wonder if he sees the other side of the equation all the time.
LUTES: No, he actually does see it. It’s just that he’s more excited by and interested in the upside. And that’s great, because, really, those of us who are a little pessimistic or not as excited, where’s that getting us? [Laughter.] I think Scott’s enthusiasm is amazing and inspirational and contagious. And one of the great things about him is that he’s always willing to engage with you and discuss these ideas. He understands the other side and has a response for it. And when he doesn’t have a response for it? He openly admits that. He’ll concede the radiation from laptop electronic books may eventually kill us all. [Stump laughs.] But he’s very excited by the possibilities of what he sees.
STUMP: So what would his response — I guess it’s dumb to ask you [Lutes laughs] — what’s the opposite argument against the lack of intimacy that happens when you transfer comics electronically.
LUTES: The e-books will change all that.
STUMP: So that it will be almost indistinguishable from print to screen.
LUTES: “They” say that the actual texture of the screen will be like paper. E-books will be little handheld objects intended to approximate the intimate experience of a reading a paper book.
For me, the issue is that the content will exist as chunks of memory rather than tangible pages. Maybe I’ll just have to take a back seat as that revolution happens without me because I’m so attached to the concrete, physical book. But I think that a lot of other people will continue to be attached to it, too.
STUMP: There’s something about the physical object, nostalgia or just its tangibility, people don’t want to always be groundless in an increasingly intangible world. That’s why having something you can physically grab is appealing to people.
The newspaper in the morning … there’s something about the physical act of turning the pages.
LUTES: Absolutely. We’re still physical creatures, we continue to feel a strong connection to material objects.
STUMP: Whereas McCloud might say, “Well, but the ink stains your hands!”
LUTES: And newspapers, although they’ve suffered, are still around. A more specific aspect is that a comic book is pieces of paper that are stapled together. It’s clear how that’s accomplished, and when you look at it, you can see the ink on the paper. There’s more of a direct connection between the reader and makers of the book. On a computer screen, you don’t really comprehend all the “middlemen.” It’s a comic thing. In no other print medium I can think of, in fact, is the connection between the reader and the creators — the cartoonist and the publisher and the printer — as direct. You can have a prose book, but the prose is typeset. It’s not handwritten. Comics are written by hand, they’re drawn by hand. And they’re stapled, little metal stitches.
So with the wide-open creative temptation of electronic media, why would I choose to work in three dimensions, on Bristol board that will get translated onto a printed, tangible page? Because it’s sincere. Relative to the white noise of data passing across a screen, an object is specific, comprehensible in form, and open to scrutiny. As long our receptors respond to physical stimuli and we haven’t evolved into brains floating in Mason jars, the physical object and its sensual elements will retain value. Because matter matters. The collision and exchange of molecules still means something to us. In that way, comics are much more in their physical form than in any electronic form they may assume.
STUMP: What would you say about something like Dave McKean’s work? That seems like a unique example.
LUTES: Like Cages? To my mind, the computer/collage stuff, as comics, is a failure. Not an utter failure, because you can still read it as a comic, but it’s about as distancing to the reader as possible. As illustration, or stand-alone art, possibly successful if you like that kind of thing. I have not read all of Cages, but it has a simple palette, it’s drawn in pen and ink, it’s hand-lettered, it’s relatively straightforward in its presentation. There’s much more possibility there that the gap between him and the reader will be closed than with the pages that are full-color, PhotoShopp-y, and visually dense or deep.
STUMP: In Mr. Punch, he incorporates photography.
LUTES: The most jarring, horrible mistake I can think of. I shouldn’t discount it out of hand, it certainly seems possible that photography could be successfully integrated, but I have yet to find an example of it. I think I might feel differently if I was looking at his originals as stand-alone pieces. But because I’m dealing with a mechanical, reproduced product, multi-layered collage, photography, all that more artsy stuff — while visually appealing, and obviously selling well to a lot of people — as comics, or what I would consider effective comics, it’s a failure.
STUMP: You think as one huge single image it can be successful, though.
LUTES: Yeah … if you like that kind of thing, sure. But then it’s closer to painting than comics, and is processed by the viewer in an entirely different manner.
STUMP: The idea of collage kind of implying one unified image.
LUTES: Where you can see all the different pieces. As opposed to a flat reproduction of the thing. For instance, color comics in general, like a computer-colored or fully-painted comic, are mostly just egregious failures to understand what happens in a comic book. Only in the rarest exception can somebody pull off color in a comic book and maintain the intimacy.
STUMP: Let alone painted comics like Marvels or Kingdom Come.
LUTES: Or anything by Simon Bisley. [Laughter.]
STUMP: You have to be less realistic in order to achieve something that’s true; whereas with these photorealistic comics, it’s trying to become true and it’s getting the opposite effect.
LUTES: The most spare Charles Schulz cartoon allows for much more interaction, but when you get all the way to Simon Bisley or Kingdom Come, I guess that would be Alex Ross, so hyper-realistic… all that’s really about is making real every comics-reading boy’s childhood fantasy. Like seeing your favorite superhero made real — it’s like watching a movie. It’s like watching your dream movie.
STUMP: Well, why not just watch a movie about it, then.
LUTES: Because they’ve all been in pre-production for years, and the ones that have been made have all been crap. [Laughs.]
STUMP: When I read that kind of a comic, and I sort of don’t set out to read it, I stumble across it, it just seems like there’s no continuity to it. The panels seem like such a separate thing to themselves. There’s no flow, there’s no suspension of belief. It’s a little bizarre to me that people respond to that. I guess it’s all dependent on your perspective.
LUTES: It’s also that that’s what everybody’s growing up reading. And they’ve sort of gradually gotten used to … it’s the way that mainstream comics have been related and have kind of evolved, along with quick editing, sampling, sound bites in other media. It’s been a gradual change. As we all age, the media surrounding us all acquire new conventions to which we adapt.
I feel that I’m trying to get at something more basic to the medium. As opposed to, “Whew, superhero comics are bad.” It’s superhero comics culture. Those books aren’t about comics, the medium. They’re about these characters, and these worlds, and these fantasies, teenage male fantasies about violence and superiority, or in the case of Vertigo stuff, “deep” ideas like
It’s a sort of almost logical progression of superhero fetishization, to render them hyper-realistically — in order to satisfy the strange — and understandable, because I’ve shared them — [laughs] desires of people who read superhero comics. And in that sense, Kingdom Come is a blast. It’s really cool to look at, and think, “Look at the wrinkles on that guy’s costume.” [Stump laughs.] I’m sure a lot of people who grew up reading superhero comics imagined what it would be like if they were real. Obviously, that’s exactly what they’re trying to do with Kingdom Come and Marvels, despite whatever philosophical or supposed social commentary they ladle over the top of it. It’s succeeded as a fantasy fulfillment, but it’s not really true to comics the medium. It’s true only to the fantasies of the superhero subculture.
STUMP: It’s succeeded in a way that outsiders — not outsiders, but people outside of the comics realm — see that and are probably appalled by it. It’s another thing that’s just a ploy for the people who already like that stuff.
LUTES: Remember what I meant by when I said I tried to make Jar of Fools go down as easy as possible: I was trying to attain a level of visual economy, word and image existing on the same level, and also make it accessible. But make it accessible to an audience of people who don’t usually buy comics.
And yeah, that’s a reason why the ill-conceived and off-putting nature of most mainstream comics really pisses me off.
STUMP: What do you think the unwritten sort-of understanding between the reader and the artist is in comics? Is the subtext of the artist asserting himself something that takes precedence over the story that’s being told?
LUTES: I think it’s just a matter of taste, really. No matter what, you’re presenting yourself and your thoughts. No matter what. I don’t care if you’re a journalist, or think of the most objective professional — if you’re a scientist. No matter what …
STUMP: A lot of scientists —
LUTES: Would claim otherwise. But no matter what. How you process information and re-present it to somebody else, you are putting your mark on it. Inescapable subjectivity is old news, but there you have it.
STUMP: Maybe another way to approach this stuff is to go back to the problems of doing realism in comics. The specific things that can make it very frustrating. And one of them I thought of was, I can’t remember what issue of Berlin it was, but one of the characters was sticking her tongue out, and she’s saying something. And the nature of comics is such that you have her saying something while her tongue is sticking out of her mouth? I know it seems like an obscure comment …
LUTES: No. I actually try not to do that.
STUMP: It’s a very surreal moment, because it’s a contradiction. When someone like Kirby is doing comics and it’s surreal, it’s just sort of … the problems of comics actually aid him, because he’s doing something that’s non-real. But the problems of comics frustrate doing something very specific towards the real world.
LUTES: Comics do not lend themselves to realism.
STUMP: Right. But that’s what you’re trying to do. [Laughter.]
LUTES: I think they can be used for that. I’m trying to deal with the problems as they come up. I’ve got the perfect example. I never have a word balloon coming out of somebody whose mouth is closed. Like you say, if you’re not doing a realistic story, it’s kind of OK because there’s a certain given, you have that distance. But when you’re doing something like I’m trying to do, it’s important that you believe that the words are coming out of the person’s mouth, and so, often I even draw the shape of the mouth to actually reflect a key word in the accompanying word balloon.
STUMP: If someone is going through a paragraph-length of dialogue, where they’re going through a range of facial expressions, then you have to focus on one particular facial expression to capture the entire range of what these people are saying. There are so many different obstacles …
LUTES: It’s almost a form of acting in a way. You’re trying to find a general form of expression. You’re working with a sentence, maybe less. And that helps. But you have to find some kind of expression that’s representative of what they’re speaking in a sentence. the danger is that it comes out too stiff, or it comes out too much like a moment frozen in time. Which is why some of them do look like that, kind of awkward, like sticking the tongue out and saying something, that was probably a bad decision.
STUMP: I guess when I was asking about the unacknowledged agreement between the reader and the artist, do you think there’s an unstated agreement to overlook these kinds of things. Just because the person who reads the comic is so familiar with the mechanics of it, the vocabulary, that they know what that means.
LUTES: That they know what what means?
STUMP: Well, when they encounter these strange little contradictions, is it unspoken that we’ve agreed to overlook these things. How do you think that works in people’s heads? Or do you think people are just reading so quickly, that that they don’t — ?
LUTES: I think generally they’re reading so quickly that they don’t pay attention. It’s not unspoken agreements so much as inattention. With the people who read a lot of comics, there is an unspoken agreement. Because generally in comics, people have their mouths shut when they speak. That’s been accepted. Some cartoonists think it’s kind of idiotic that I try to have my characters' mouths open when they’re speaking. [Laughter.]
STUMP: Now in a simple comic like Peanuts or something, it doesn’t really make any difference somehow.
LUTES: Right. Yeah, yeah. The simpler the line, the simpler the drawing, the more free space there is. More time can go by, the simpler the drawing, the more range it has. Kind of like what Scott was saying in Understanding Comics, “simpler drawing = more room for identification.” I don’t necessarily agree with the identification part, but I do agree with the projection part. The less that’s there, the more we can read into it.
STUMP: I find it interesting that people always say that comics has the same potential as other media for doing these things that will … achieve the same levels … and I think I don’t disagree, but when people are looking for things to hold up as perfect examples, they look for these realistic works: The Sweet Hereafter, or War and Peace or something. Where there’s a real world. And in comics, that real world is such a hard thing to get at.
LUTES: Well, if you think about what goes into making a movie, none of that is actually the real world. It’s like 40 people standing around pointing lights and cameras at people. What it really is …
STUMP: It’s filmed reality. Everyone takes it … whenever you turn on a film …
LUTES: Relatively speaking, you’re going to achieve a degree of objectivity.
LUTES: Well, to say that any medium has the exact same potential is ridiculous, because every medium has its own qualities which make it that medium. And which make it easy to exploit in some areas; the strengths of film are motion and sound, but it’s less easy to exploit in other areas.
In comics, one challenge is realism. It’s all inherently subjective. I’m putting every line down on a page in an effort to make some sort of supposedly objective statement. I think that the potential is unrealized, very unrealized. You can’t do the same things with comics that you can do with prose or movies or poetry — but you can do things only possible with comics.
STUMP: Sure. But are the things that you can do that are specific to comics, that couldn’t be done in any other medium, do those things compensate for the things that are problematic. Like realistic work. Human beings. On a very sort of realistic level. There’s a trade-off, obviously.
LUTES: With any form of expression, there’s obviously a trade-off. Because you can never actually express what you really are trying to express [laughs]; you can only approximate it. And the things that are particular to comics allow a particular kind of approximation. Granted, there’s a particular kind of sensitivity in comics that makes realistic works more difficult to approach. But there are things within that which allow you to address other aspects of experience and human interaction better than other media.
STUMP: Right, right.
LUTES: You can juxtapose a word and a picture and get emotional resonance — you can get that, which is, you know, part of life. If by realism we mean pretty much visual objectivity, that’s out the window unless you’re doing a fumetti. [Laughter.] But if we’re talking about getting at the truth of a human interaction, that’s something comics absolutely can do.
STUMP: You sort of represent — not the necessarily the goal, but a successful alternative cartoonist. What someone could hope to achieve within this sub-culture.
LUTES: Within this small world.
LUTES: I’m a success that owes the IRS $5,000. [Stump laughs.] That has trouble making rent every month. That doesn’t own a car. I can’t imagine ever owning a house, at the age of 32. I guess I’m a success. [Laughter.]
STUMP: You were saying a while back that your ideal job would be physical labor.
LUTES: That would be it because otherwise, I don’t get enough exercise, even though I go running and work out when I can. I think there’s a romantic aspect to those jobs for those of us who don’t lead blue-collar lives.
STUMP: Did you find that having those small teaching jobs, even though it wasn’t a huge investment of your week, did that sort of provide you with a way of getting out into the real world, interacting with students?
LUTES: Yeah, it was great. Actually, working with the kids was awesome, because in my adult life I haven’t had that much interaction with kids. And to teach those classes allowed that. Teaching adults was really good too. In fact, just yesterday I went to a meeting of the two adult classes I taught, and we looked at and talked about the work they had started in class months ago.
You get to know the parents of the kids also. Even those small things contribute to my experience of the larger world.
LUTES: Yeah, community. And that’s really important to me.
STUMP: Did having to teach comics — looking at the way the kids solved their assignments, and having to articulate your ideas about things, did that illuminate anything particular about comics for you?
LUTES: It didn’t illuminate anything particular, but I got great joy out of seeing what people produced. Like in the adult class, none of them had done comics before, so their approach was really fascinating. I should take that back. There were a couple of instances when I did actually learn some new things. They invented things that were new to me. Like little details or techniques or emanata they would come up with. Emanata are the symbols that radiate from characters in comics.
STUMP: Let me ask you about Reinventing Comics before I forget. I think previously when we talked about this new dawn of whatever the hell it will be, you said that you wanted to be sort of left out, you were going to have let the technological revolution pass you by. You weren’t interested quite so much. But then now that you’ve read Reinventing Comics, it changed your perception slightly. Or do I have that right?
LUTES: Yeah. I would say it changed my perception slightly. [Laughs.]
STUMP: Your attitudes towards technology.
LUTES: No, not so much. My attitudes toward e-comics. I still feel that e-comics exist in this sort of non-space where they have less gravity and less physical … it’s so great, it’s great, the word matter. They will matter less. And what matter is … I just love that. They will matter less when they don’t have matter. When they are not composed of matter. [Stump laughs.]
STUMP: So the object-hood of comics, where Scott thinks it’s irrelevant to the concept of comics, it may in fact be …
LUTES: It’s irrelevant to the concept of comics to the degree that the physical form of anything is irrelevant to its content. [Laughs.] It’s not the thing.
STUMP: Language and the object-hood of the book are two very different things.
LUTES: Of course. Right. It’s just a vehicle for expression.
STUMP: I’m not totally convinced that the physical form isn’t an essential element of comics … he seems to say the dissolution of the page will free comics, but later on, he sort of concedes that the page juxtaposes panels in physical space next to each other. So the if the thing about comics is that they’re juxtaposed on the same physical plane …
LUTES: Part of his definition is that the juxtaposition is essential. You need two panels next to each other. But you don’t have to have them in a rectangle the size of a comic book page. That’s all. You can have two panels next to each other and then click on something that will show you two more panels, or all these little panels down a staircase arrangement or whatever. Juxtaposition is the essential element.
STUMP: The page is the reason why you trap things next to each other. Because you have a limited amount of space to work with. And you have to fit it as best you can within a certain environment.
LUTES: No. Because you can just make a flipbook. The page does not necessitate juxtaposition.
STUMP: But then again, he returns to the idea that e-books will just re-assert the page and will just …
LUTES: Right. To monitor-size.
STUMP: And it will be the same sort of situation that we are. I wonder what you were supposed to take from that in the here and now. It’s great to explore all the possibilities, but how does that affect how anyone would go about doing what they’re doing right now. How is that going to affect what you do?
LUTES: Well. It’s not going to affect the comics I do now at all.
STUMP: Right. You might do something different …
LUTES: I might do something on the Internet or something electronically to play around with those ideas. There are some really interesting aspects to it. I can’t imagine digitally creating any work of what I would consider substance or something that I think matters, with all my egotistical aspirations. [Laughter.] But there are a lot of interesting things you can do in that medium.
I’m fascinated by different media and what you can do with them. This is a new one. It’s a new form that comics can take. And I’m interested in its particulars. A really good, simple example is the “Pitch Unger” story by Tom Hart and Jon Lewis on the USS Catastrophe website. They just scanned in the pages right out of the comic. It’s in Japanese, and you just see one page at a time. Why not just read the comic book?
But whenever you move your mouse pointer over a word balloon, it changes from the inscrutable Japanese to the English translation. That slightest bit of interaction makes the comic that much more engaging and very simply, very clearly, pointed out to me how the interaction can contribute to how a work is absorbed. It gave it a reason to be digital, and it was that much more engaging. For me. Just that tiny bit of interactivity proved to me that you can do some effective, unobtrusive things with that medium. Ignoring most of the bells and whistles. On a very simple, basic level, you can make an e-comic wherein the trappings minimize distraction from the content.
STUMP: The danger being that the more you get involved with making it interactive and engaging for the reader, the less it becomes …
LUTES: … a comic.
STUMP: What we’re normally interested in. Then they get so far apart that you sort of wonder, well, what does this have to do with my interests in reading and drawing. It’s new, and it’s great, but who cares? On some level.
LUTES: Yeah. Absolutely. As with any set of tools, you have to look at it, be really judicious, figure out what you need and what you can throw away, what’s useful and what’s not. Always keeping in mind what it is you’re trying to say. I recognized — after reading Scott’s book and seeing a couple of examples of effective e-comics — the value of some of those tools.
For me, the bottom line is “What are you saying, and is it interesting?” The whole proliferation of desktop publishing, things like Raygun and stuff like that — people got carried away with what they could do with PhotoShop and other …
STUMP: The design overwhelmed the content.
LUTES: Exactly. Design became the raison d’être. And in the end, I have no use for that. It doesn’t enrich my life at all. In fact, I find it to be annoying noise. [Stump laughs.]