Jesse Moynihan is a force. Storyboard artist, writer, cartoonist, webcartoonist, blogger — he's everywhere. I've enjoyed following his webcomic Forming, and I was thrilled when I saw that it had been published (beautifully) in book form by Nobrow (available in the States thru Adhouse). Jesse will be at APE in San Francisco on October 1st and 2nd. Go say hi and buy something from him.
I asked Jesse to let me interview him about what he does and how he does it. He was really patient and kind. Thanks, Jesse.
Also, at the end of the interview is a long scroll comic written by Mr. Moynihan and drawn by Dash Shaw. This is one of my favorite short comics ever, I think. It appeared in The Believer. The genesis of its making is a really interesting story so I thought it would be fun to reprint the strip here. Thanks to Andrew Leland, Brian McMullen, and Dash Shaw for their help.
Frank Santoro: First, can you just describe what you do with your time?
Jesse Moynihan: I'm a storyboard artist on Adventure Time. Pretty much that's what I'm doing with most of my life. When I get home from that I work on Forming. Sometimes I paint, do art favors for people, and write music in my bedroom. I'm also trying to put a show pitch together with my brother based on the Forming world, but way in the future. It's taking forever to get that project going because most of the time I'm so fried, I just want to take naps and watch Doctor Who.
Santoro: Tell me about Follow Me. That was the first extended look I had of your work. I really enjoyed the way the narrative moved and how the drawing was pared down. I also enjoyed the humor. How was Follow Me written?
Moynihan: My memory isn't so clear about time lines and when I wrote what. In fact my memory is really worthless, except when it comes to music and movies. But if I remember right, Follow Me was written in the midst of writing my previous Backwards Folding Mirror books. That whole period of time blends together for me because, it's all bits pulled from my life. Sometimes I would write something and set it aside for later. I don't know what happened first or what. I think though, if you read those books in order (along with the strip I was doing for the Philadelphia Weekly), you can watch my relationship with my girlfriend go down the crapper, come back up for air and then sink into the toilet again.
Of course that stuff isn't strictly autobiographical. Some of it comes from daydreams, long showers, running, and the desire to write funny gags. A lot of times I will sit in a chair and stare at the wall. I let my mind go blank and whatever pops in first, I'll try to explore and see if something comes of it. Usually I can get some nice nuggets that way; by just trusting my impulses or whatever it is.
After I had a bunch of little stories written, I looked for common threads to punch up and clarify. The threads were there because all of it was coming from an honest, personal place. Obviously a dude only has a handful of things he's really thinking about in the course of a few years. So those things are going to manifest in different ways in different stories. Then it's not so hard to find ways for the stories to relate to each other and create a loose arc for readers to follow.
Santoro: Can you talk about "working the grid" with your page layouts? I think your stories move very cleanly across the page in part because you often use the grid or a fixed tier arrangement of panels.
Moynihan: Yeah, the grid. I've been using a pretty standard nine-panel grid for a long time. I find it useful, especially for my kind of storytelling which relies heavily on emotional and comedic beats. It helps keep my timing organized; understanding how events are unfolding. I guess I have sort of a filmmaker's mind. I was a film major. The aspect ratio never changes during the course of a movie. My thoughts on this are super disorganized, so I'm just gonna throw out some junk and see if it makes sense. For a while I was really into conservative layouts. I only wanted crazy shit happening within the frame. I didn't want the frames acting crazy themselves. I wanted to be transparent. Just follow the story. No flashy pages. Keep the reader chugging along, with a clear understanding of what it means to go from panel to panel. Fifty pages into a story they can recognize a motif from earlier because it's being composed in the same way. It's a little hard to put these thoughts into words. A lot of what I do is sort of instinctual or based on half-thought-out impressions of how to go about things.
Anyway, so about a year or so ago I decided to take steps to break out of the grid; figure out ways to convey meaning with different layouts. It's been challenging for me. It stresses me out. I go back to the grid a lot, but if you follow my work you'll see that I've been trying out a lot of compositional ideas that are new for me.
Santoro: I've noticed that you are mixing it up on Forming a bit more. What interests me is the momentum that the grid generates. You have the reader right there with you all this way for forty-some pages and then break out of it — there's a rhythm there that interests me. It's subtle.
Moynihan: Yeah I was being super strict about it for the first forty or so episodes. Then slowly starting to break out. I know I had a reason for it, but it's a little hard for me to fully articulate. I think at first I wanted to establish a rhythm for sure. I wanted to convey as much info as possible each week, so nine-panel pages seemed to work. I could fit a decent chunk of narrative into that layout. There is a lot of information packed into those early episodes I think. I'm covering a lot of ground, so the pages are a little claustrophobic when viewed as a whole. Then something started to happen where I was feeling boxed in. As the narrative unfolded I felt the need to expand my language. So the pages opened up a little. I felt a little nervous about this because since I'm only posting a page a week, I want to get a lot of story in there. I want it to move. But I want the reader to have a rich visual experience as well. So now, if I feel like I can communicate something impressive visually I will go for it, rather than stick to the grid. It's a balancing act of going for the big shit and being tasteful/intentional.
A major reason why I started Forming was to expand my tools; push myself out of my comfort zone. The first step of that was just working with color, which was scary to me. I hadn't really worked in color since the late '90s when I took color theory class at Pratt. The second step was to put more thought into my layouts, increase my options. The third step I think for me now is to be more conscious about space. I've been trying hard to get into that mode of thinking about creating depth. Trying to make it so that the reader feels like they can step into a panel. It's a hard because my drawings aren't so slick. But that's what I'm thinking about at least. Color, layout, and creating space. Hopefully I'm getting better at it and people can see me improving.
Santoro: Talk a little more about the timing and the fixed screen and the way that you build gags. The idea of the fixed screen interests me as a traditional comic strip sequence and as a film rule like "the screen never changes" -
Moynihan: I think I understand this question. Well I guess I based a lot of my early ideas about pacing on movies. I really fetishize tracking shots, like a lot of film dudes. So for me, holding the same composition over the course of several frames is like a long take. It helps me stay there with the character... like I'm in the room with them because God isn't cutting back and forth to different angles and close ups. I'm sure this kind of talk is covered in lots of places. I feel a little stupid talking about it because it seems obvious, and someone who actually thinks hard about this could explain it better. Oh well. Anyway I'll keep trying. So the the more I try to convey the natural passage of time, the easier it is to sell a gag. I don't know if what I just said is true. Okay, I'll put it this way. It's pretty much all intuitive, but I'm grabbing a lot from my favorite directors—techniques I've seen in movies that I like—and then trying my best to apply them to comics, except then comics has its own set of tools that film doesn't so you can take advantage of those things as well to set up a gag or build a moment or whatever. Is that what you were asking?
Santoro: No, I mean... I'm talking about timing. One, two, three, four panel in a conventional comic strip. There is an inherent timing: the fixed panel comes with its own timing and how the unit of the fixed panel comes into play on the page. Meaning you were using nine panels per page. That has a timing. You can play with time in a fixed panel situation because the unit of measure is fixed. So the timing is specific - as you opened up the layouts - you changed the timing - HOW HAS THAT INTUITIVE BEAT CHANGED FOR YOU AS YOU HAVE CHANGED LAYOUTS? HOW DOES IT FEEL. LIKE YOU CAN IMPROVISE MORE? (I'm yelling.)
Moynihan: OHH, I see what you're asking. Okay yeah the nine-panel set up is how I've been working since like 2005. It's so ingrained in me I don't have to think about creating a satisfying arc. It just comes out of me. I can anticipate where I need to be by the fifth panel to resolve it by the ninth. I don't know how. I think I can do that with any length though. I worked with three panels the Philly Weekly and never felt tripped up by it.
But yeah, as my layouts have become less predictable, I've had to adjust the way I think about setting up a scenario. I've started to think less about ending a page with a punchline. Maybe that's detrimental to the web format. I don't know. But I really can't do anything about it. I think though the trick is figuring out what you want to accomplish on a given page, and then roughly visualizing it in one mind swoop. If you can do that, then you won't have to worry about losing the sharpness of your timing? Once again most of this is me theorizing about what I'm doing. I don't actually know. So much of it is automatic. I'm not thinking most of the time, just reacting and feeling the page. I don't usually question myself once I've made a decision, which happens pretty quick.
Santoro How aware of the spreads were you when making single pages? Because some pages read across the bottom nicely - like it feels as though you were aware of the spreads - how it would read as a book... can you talk about composing or not composing for spreads. Was it just single pages for deadline - and the grid just lining up sometimes storywise?
Moynihan I think mostly it was luck. There were times when I was thinking about two or three pages at once, but I had no idea how it would be laid out in book form. That's a disadvantage of publishing on the web in increments, if you're planning on eventually collecting it in book form. When I did Follow Me, I definitely thought, "These pages need to be seen at the same time." Not so with Forming. I don't remember thinking that anyway.
Santoro Yeah, I think it's the rhythm thing we were talking about - you just can feel it reading it - the page is the unit but sometimes the timing of the spread really changes it from the webcomic I gotta say.
Moynihan Yeah, like I said luck, ha ha.
Santoro: Seems like the serial aspect of webcomics has worked for you. Forming seems to exist in time like some of my favorite TV shows. Can you talk about working serially - what the pros and cons might be?
Moynihan: The pros are mostly social. I can make bits of story, post them up and people can see that I'm working at something. I didn't give up comics to get my masters degree. I'm still here, working on this new story. Whereas the other option is you disappear for two to five years, giving your life to this thing; hoping that someone will publish it and that the few hundred people who saw your last book will be excited that you re-appeared.
That thought really bummed me out. I worked for two years on Follow Me after self-publishing a few books. By the time Follow Me got published I felt like I had lost the tiny buzz those first comics had gotten me. I'm not fast enough to have a big book out every year. So serializing is a nice solution. I feel like an active member of society. It helps my heart.
Santoro: That's refreshing to hear. Do you wish you could turn it off though sometimes? Less day to day and compose more like you would if you did hole up for a couple years? Like has the book version changed how you look at collecting the web comic in the future?
Moynihan: That's a cool thing about working with the big picture in mind, as opposed to the weekly gag mindset. Yeah when I finally read through Forming in book form it was apparent to me how much I was being affected by the weekly deadlines. A large chunk of time transpires in just the first few pages that I probably would have let breathe a little more if I wasn't posting online. At the same time, the desire for things to happen every week sort of turns me into a tough editor. I decided to bypass exposition whenever I could. Just cut to the action as much as possible. Who cares if I don't explain the detailed workings of Atlantean society? If I was working on the book in solitude, I might have delved into that stuff a bit more. The boring stuff. Or maybe not. Anyway, when reading the collected volume, I think it's pretty apparent that it was a weekly webcomic. So working like that has an effect on the tone. It's punchier than what would have come out otherwise. I think when I'm not working for a weekly deadline, my stuff is a bit more meditative. So Forming would have been more meditative.
I think reading through the book has made me think that I could benefit from stretching out a little; letting some moments last longer and not worry so much about resolving an idea in one or two pages.
Santoro: How bout having to deal with he audience's reaction while it's happening week to week? Do audience expectations factor in somehow?
Moynihan: Audience expectations sometime creep up on me because I want to entertain people. I want my stuff to be exciting and funny so yeah. But as soon as the thought of pandering comes into my mind, I get this sick, sinking feeling. I really despise pandering to expectations. It's the dumbest shit an artist can do, and will ultimately lead to losing your audience. I think? Yeah because it becomes more like they're writing your stories and making your drawings for you. And what fun is that if you can't surprise them with something they couldn't think of?
I would be lying if I said that feedback has no effect on me. I think I worry about letting people down from week to week. It's still in the back of my mind but I don't let it compromise what I'm doing. Hopefully Forming is too fragmented and weird for anyone to really develop expectations. As long as I'm surprising and amusing myself I think I'm safe from pandering.
Santoro: What's your process like? What are you originals like? What are you coloring with?
Moynihan: I try to thumb about twenty episodes in advance. I've been sketching stuff out in a Moleskine. I pencil on 11"x14" Bristol vellum paper that comes in those pads that you get from Blick or wherever. I like to be able to carry all my supplies in a backpack so I can work anywhere. I go stir crazy in my house. I need to be around people or else I devolve into a pile of spaghetti on the floor; eating pb&j and watching Dr. Who with my pants off.
I color over the pencils with Acryla Gouache. I ink straight on the gouache with a brush pen and letter with a .05 micron. Then I clean up my dirty smudges with Photoshop usually. I've been thinking about going through all my pages and trying to clean them up by hand. I try to keep Photoshop out of the process as much as I can, unless I think it can do something specific for me that will enhance my storytelling.
Santoro: Okay, wait, slow down. You pencil first, then color it with gouache. And then you are inking over the color with a brush pen. So you are laying down the color first. Are you working from thumbnail color guides when you are painting the gouache? And then tell me more about inking over the color with a brush pen.
Moynihan: Yeah I'm laying down the color first. No color guides. That would slow me down too much! I did some color guides with Photoshop for a piece called Simon Magus (MOME 22). That was helpful but not usually how I do things. Since I'm using a medium that can build layers, it's not difficult to go back in and edit the color scheme to an extent. For the most part I trust that my eye can decide what needs to happen on the fly.
Inking over the color is just a matter of believing that I won't totally screw it up. That's never happened to me. I don't mind minor mistakes anyway. Making my stuff look super slick has never been a priority, and if I really mess it up I can always paint over it. Lately I've been using a Kuretake No. 13 Fountain Hair Brush Pen. It's an amazing pen.
Santoro: Tell me about the print version of Forming. It's a very handsome printed object, I gotta say. Nobrow did a nice job, I thought.
Moynihan: Hey thanks, man. I'm glad they took the reins with that. I don't know how to make a good-looking book, so I trusted them to put it together in a way that would amplify the vibe of the story. So yeah I'm super pleased with it. All of their books look awesome so I wasn't worried about it. Holding it in my hand was a relief after seeing my 11"x14" pages go up as low res images on the web for so long.
JESSE MOYNIHAN INTERVIEW EXTRAS - BONUS MATERIAL
Santoro: Lastly, can you talk about your collaboration with Dash Shaw on that fold -out comic for The Believer? The strip was called Spiritual Dad and appeared in the May 2010 issue of The Believer as an insert. The insert was one long scroll that was essentially created by the trim of the printer, right? That is one of my favorite short stories ever. Even though the story references Lost- and I've never watched Lost - I still understood how it was used in the comic.
Moynihan: You should watch Lost, man. I love that show. Well I had this idea for a while about doing a comic about my dad's life before me. I don't really know that much about my parents. I'm close with them but they never really talk about their past. I get these small bits of information sometimes. I know my dad was an evangelical street preacher in Brooklyn at some point. I know he wandered around the country and did drugs a lot. I know he has always been sort of a seeker; trying to figure out what he's doing here. So I thought it would be cool to mythologize his life based on my impressions and imagination.
I was somewhere with Dash and we talked about collaborating on something. I pitched that idea to him about doing a comic about my dad. He was into it, but the first thing I sent him I think was not what he expected. I think it was too adventure-y and surreal. There was no clear arc. I guess he couldn't find an angle on the story that he could relate to. I'm not totally sure. You'd have to ask him. Anyway, then we met up sometime later... We got to talking about how much we liked Lost and then started getting into the idea about doing a story based on the show.
I immediately got this feeling like I could tie my dad's experiences with some of the themes on that show. So I tossed my previous drafts and came up with a new one that involved familial relationships, expectations, free will and destiny. Dash seemed to like that. He gave me a lot of feedback and I re-wrote parts based on his suggestions. I think we went back and forth three or four times? I can't remember clearly.
After he was happy with it, he took my thumbnails and made finished drawings with a different layout. That's pretty much how it went I think.
Frank Santoro here. After interviewing Jesse, I was still curious about the Spiritual Dad strip. So I asked Dash Shaw about how the comic ended up in The Believer in a scroll, fold-out format. This is Dash's reply:
Dash Shaw: I knew Andrew Leland, an editor at The Believer, and showed him Spiritual Dad. He, or someone else he knew there, had the idea of printing it on the excess of the sheets that they publish The Believer covers on. Imagine there are three covers printed on each one of the large sheets at the printer-- there's an extra strip of space that they (smartly) use to print subscription postcards or other stuff. I reformatted the comic to fit into that strip. I don't know the exact math-- I don't know the print run of The Believer-- but it would be like every time they'd print 10,000 Believer issues, they'd get 1,000 Spiritual Dads. They kept them in storage. They took a break one issue to print postcards I think. They eventually accumulated enough Spiritual Dads to include in one issue and it came out the same month that Lost ended."
Frank here again. So, Dash's story intrigued me so I tracked down Andrew Leland at The Believer to get the real dope. I asked Mr. Leland if he had any recollections about the project. This is his reply:
Andrew Leland: Brian McMullen and I talked over a beer about how it would be awesome to put a long double-sided comic on the extra strip of Believer stock. I found Dash Shaw somehow and sent Dash a PDF sketch of the layout that Brian imagined. Then Dash adapted his piece using Brian's proposed layout as a guide..... The response to the strip was great -- readers really appreciated the surprise, I think.
Frank here again. Last one. I was at APE two years ago with Dash and Jesse when they both saw the printed strip for the first time. It was exciting and I thought this strip was truly novel and and inventive. I was really happy for them. I think this strip is under a lot of folks' radar. Some saw it, some didn't. So I asked Mr. Leland at The Believer if we could reprint it here. He agreed. Thanks Andrew! Thanks again also to Brian McMullen and Dash Shaw. And of course thanks to Jesse. Please enjoy.
by Jesse Moynihan and Dash Shaw
appeared in the May 2010 issue of The Believer