TCJ ARCHIVE

The Chester Brown Interview

GRAMMEL: After high school you did try to break into the business. Let’s go over those stories. Was it right upon graduation?

BROWN: Yeah, pretty much. I graduated, and I figured, “The only thing I want to do is draw comics, so I’d better go down to New York and try and break in.” My original idea was just to go down by myself, but my dad wasn’t having any of that. It turned out to be a family expedition, with my dad, my brother, and I all going down together, which actually turned out to be OK. I don’t know how I would’ve handled it if I’d been on my own then.

GRAMMEL: What were you bringing down to show them?

BROWN: I didn’t have any superhero stuff done. All those supposedly funny short strips that I’d done, you know, none of them were of any professional quality, and I knew that, so I wasn’t taking those down. All I had were lots of pinup-type things of mostly demons and dragons and skeletons. Stuff like that. At that time they were still publishing mystery books, so I think I was kind of hoping to break into those. And I heard that that’s what they started you off on anyway, so that was fine by me. I liked that kind of stuff. So I guess I was kind of hoping that lots and lots of pictures of demons and things would be what they were looking for.

GRAMMEL: What was their reaction? Did you talk to anyone?

BROWN: Not at Marvel. At Marvel you left the portfolio overnight and they looked at it — or maybe they didn’t look at it. You came in the next day and they said, “No.” But at DC I got to talk to Vince Colletta, and he was quite encouraging.

GRAMMEL: Was he the art director at that time?

BROWN: At DC, yeah.

GRAMMEL: What kind of advice did he give?

BROWN: Well, he didn’t look at the stuff that I wanted him to look at. He didn’t look at my portfolio of all these well-drawn devils and stuff. He picked up my sketchbook and flipped through it instead. I don’t know why I had my sketchbook with me, but I didn’t want him to look through it, but he did anyway. There actually were some pictures of superheroes in there. Captain America, probably Batman and Superman, and stuff like that. So he went over those, and took out some tracing paper and drew over the figures, and showed me the way that they should have been drawn. Actually took quite a bit of time with me, explaining the mistakes I was making, and what I should do to improve, and told me to keep with it and come back in a year or so.

GRAMMEL: Sounds very encouraging. Sounds like he was a nice man.

BROWN: He was very encouraging and very nice. It made me feel kind of funny because I’d hated his work for so long, but in person he was very nice.

GRAMMEL: So you went home and drew furiously for another year?

BROWN: I went home and went to Dawson College, studying commercial art.

GRAMMEL: Did you have an idea what you wanted to do?

BROWN: Yes. I knew all along I wanted to get into comics. And, um… it was fun. It was neat being in a room with all these other creative people, all these other artists, because in high school you’re always the best kid in your class. Then you get into art school and everyone else is an artist, and it’s kind of neat to be in a room with all this creative energy going on.

There were 200 people that applied for this course and only 50 or so would get in. We had to go in and have an interview, and two people would look at our stuff, and they really looked at everything and talked to us for quite a while.

GRAMMEL: You were only there a year?

BROWN: I was there just over a year.

GRAMMEL: So why did you drop out? Was it money, or you weren’t getting enough out of it?

BROWN: I realized it wasn’t aiming me toward a career in comics. It was teaching me how to draw screwdrivers or whatever. Actually, there was a set of us in the class who were all interested in comic books, and all of those people dropped out.

GRAMMEL: Do you think you got something out of it?

BROWN: Oh, yeah. I’m glad I went. The big thing was they introduced you to a whole bunch of different materials. When I went there I was just using Radiograph, which is not the best tool to use. And it was at Dawson that I first started doing fanzine work.

The other guys I just mentioned who were into comics were doing stuff for this fanzine called Weird Tales, and they got me into it. At this point I didn’t consider myself a writer. I just wanted to draw and the guy that was putting out this fanzine had stories by his friends (who were all still in high school) that he wanted turned into comics. It seemed perfect until I read the stories, which, of course, were awful. I usually ended up rewriting the dialogue and sometimes rearranging the plot. This got me thinking, “Instead of rewriting other people’s stories, why not just write your own?”

Also doing this stuff for Weird Tales was this guy Rich Tremblay whose comics looked really free and uninhibited. He’d often draw a comic without writing a script for it or penciling the pictures. This gave his stuff a really immediate impact and I got very excited about using this kind of unstructured approach. I started experimenting and this led to the early Yummy Fur strips. Rich, of course, was taking all his cues from the undergrounds which I still was not reading.

GRAMMEL: And one of these experiments was this one-pager in Weird Tales that you showed me?

BROWN: “Free-Hand Comiks.” Yeah.

GRAMMEL: Was this close to what you were doing in your sketchbooks anyway?

BROWN: Not really. My sketchbook was not that organized.

GRAMMEL: It was still geared to superhero-type work?

BROWN: Quite a bit. I still did quite a bit of figures that looked like superheroes, and pictures of Batman, pictures of Superman. And, actually, I still draw Batman and Superman in my sketchbooks quite often. Well, I don’t have sketchbooks now, but on my doodle pages, whatever.

GRAMMEL: Are they done in the new Chester Brown style?

BROWN: Yup.

GRAMMEL: It’d be funny to see it. Kind of like what if Chester did do Superman or Batman? I’d love to see some of that stuff. I know they had that sketchbook section from you [The Comics Journal #125], but that would be something interesting.

BROWN: Yeah. When the Journal asked me to contribute those sketchbook pages I made sure that they weren’t pages that had superheroes on them. [Laughter.]

GRAMMEL: I’ve seen three of the stories in the Weird Tales fanzine you did before starting Yummy Fur. Are there many more stories that you’ve done that I just didn’t see because they’re not printed in a fanzine? Were you prolific, or not?

BROWN: No. No, just about everything I did saw print in one way or another. There were fanzines that I didn’t show you because the stuff in those ones was just too awful to show anyone.

GRAMMEL: That’s the stuff I wanted to see. [Laughter.]

BROWN: I know. Anyway, I didn’t show it to you. But there wasn’t a whole lot of stuff you didn’t see. There were maybe two or three other fanzines that I had stuff printed in. So I wasn’t tremendously prolific before Yummy Fur.

GRAMMEL: But you still wanted to break into Marvel?

BROWN: Yeah. It was about this time that I made my second trip to New York.

GRAMMEL: So you were roughly 19 or 20?

BROWN: I would’ve been still… 18, about to turn 19, when I went down the second time.

GRAMMEL: So you were still in high school the first time?

BROWN: The first time? No, I’d just graduated.

GRAMMEL: How old were you when you graduated?

BROWN: 17. We graduated earlier in Quebec. We got out in grade 11. But anyway, I went back down, and this time the Marvel method had changed of looking at portfolios. I left my portfolio there and I figured it was going to be the same thing again — you left your portfolio overnight. Only the next day, when I went in, they didn’t hand it back and say, “No.” Jim Shooter came out with the portfolio and went through the portfolio with me, telling me what he thought of the different things.

GRAMMEL: What was Jim Shooter at this time?

BROWN: He was at that point editor-in-chief. So the top guy in the company came out and spent his time with some unknown artist who had just come in. That kind of surprised me and impressed me. He was very nice. Well, actually, everyone that I met, all the professionals were very encouraging and pleasant and helpful. So he went through the portfolio and said I had a lot of talent and everything.

GRAMMEL: What kind of stuff were you bringing in this time?

BROWN: No superhero stuff. I had taken down a lot of the stuff that I’d done for Weird Tales. The major piece being that one about the old guy in the city. So he went through it, and the remark that stands out in my mind being his remark about how he wanted beautiful people in his comics — or Marvel comics — and that I didn’t draw enough beautiful people. But he was encouraging, and he told me that I should try again in a year or so.

GRAMMEL: Was he giving you any particular guidance as to things he wanted you to work on, or point out areas where you were already strong?

BROWN: Yeah. He said that I was placing my blacks well, and he didn’t like the way I was drawing hair. He said I should study the way Joe Sinnott or Prank Giacoia drew hair.

GRAMMEL: Very slick.

BROWN: Uh-huh. So then I went over to DC. I don’t think they had an art director any more, but Mike Ban was looking at stuff. So he looked over my portfolio, and he didn’t seem quite sure what to do about it. Like, he seemed to think that there was something in my work, and he didn’t want to say “no.” So he went out of the office and he was looking for Joe Orlando, and Joe Orlando turned out to be in some meeting or something, so he couldn’t show it to him, and he got Ross Andru in to look at it. They were both going through it. His remark was that my stuff kind of looked like underground comix, and that he wanted to see superheroes because I actually didn’t have any superheroes in the portfolio. So he recommended that I go home and draw some superhero stuff and send that in. So I went home and drew up some superhero stuff and I sent it back to him and got back a rejection letter.

GRAMMEL: What did you think of the superhero work that you did? Did you think it was any good?

BROWN: Not really. It was kind of rushed. I wanted to get it back to him as soon as possible, and I probably didn’t take as much time with it as I should have. I think I could do superheroes. I couldn’t now, probably. Well, I could, but I’d have to do them on my own terms now. But doing superheroes that fit into the Marvel-DC way of doing things, I think I could’ve at that time.

GRAMMEL: Part of this is that vague question that if you’d done something and they’d said, “This is good superhero work,” would you have been lost?

BROWN: Oh, yeah.

GRAMMEL: Would we have never thought of you as the guy who could do something like Yummy Fur?

BROWN: Yeah. I would’ve just become some Marvel-DC hack, and that would have been it. I probably would’ve been out of the business by now.

GRAMMEL: Out of the business?

BROWN: Probably. I don’t think I could have stood it for too long. Either that or I would be still working on Thor or some book like that. I would’ve been lost forever.

GRAMMEL: Art Spiegelman was quoted in an article as saying, and I’m paraphrasing, “Comics is a young medium, and I’m young, too. Maybe we’ll grow up together.” If you want to write fiction, look at what you can look back on. In a way it can be intimidating, but obviously there are a lot of inspirations there. Do you wish you had a wider range of role models?

BROWN: That quote is a good one. But I felt that I pretty much had those comics there when I was really losing interest in the Marvel and DC stuff in the early ’80s. I mean, there was Cerebus; Love and Rockets was just about to be published; Art Spiegelman had a lot of good stuff at that time (Breakdowns had already been published by then). You had the Crumb stuff, if you could make the mental leap — I finally managed to. And there was a lot of good old stuff. Little Orphan Annie. Dover published a couple collections of Little Orphan Annie that I really liked. It’s not adult in the way that Dostoevsky is, but it’s still good stuff.

GRAMMEL: It’s certainly a leap from Spider-Man and Superman. So was this when you became aware of the comic-strip history, and the wealth therein?

BROWN: Yeah. I was kind of vaguely aware of it before. You don’t really turn to it until you get to a point where you’re interested in entering into it — until you’re bored of Marvel and DC. Actually, I’ve forgotten an important thing that was leaning me away from superheroes: Heavy Metal magazine, which I read right from the first issue.

GRAMMEL: That came out, roughly, in ’76…

BROWN: Seventy-seven, I think, because it was just before I graduated, or right around the time I graduated from high school, which was in ’77. So I was reading Heavy Metal and that was developing my comics in a direction other than superheroes.

GRAMMEL: So did you find Heavy Metal to be a bridge between the slickness of traditional comics and the freedom of the undergrounds?

BROWN: Yeah. It came along at the right point for me. It was a very good bridge.

GRAMMEL: Who were the artists in Heavy Metal you really enjoyed?

BROWN: I like Corben fine. Moebius was really the big thing that kept me reading it, that was really… that kept me interested. Another “bridge” type book was A Contract With God by Will Eisner, which I picked up when it first came out back in ’79. And I’d forgotten about that, but it was an important book, too, in making me see that there were other types of ways of doing comics. There were other kinds of comics that were possible.

GRAMMEL: And you ‘d been reading The Spirit, so you were already a fan of Eisner’s work.

BROWN: Right, but here he was doing something different, and something that wasn’t about a character with a mask on his face. That was neat stuff, and kind of eye-opening at the time.

GRAMMEL: Also at this point, or somewhere around this point, you ‘re getting introduced to the undergrounds, which you really didn’t know much about, right?

BROWN: Yeah, right. No, I didn’t know much about them at all. I first ran into them when I was going to Dawson. Some of the people there, some of the people that were also doing stuff for Weird Tales were into undergrounds, so I saw the stuff they had. And also, walking around Montreal, going into the different bookstores I’d see them there. No, I didn’t think much of underground comix at first.

GRAMMEL: You’ve talked about when you first saw Crumb’s work, and I’d appreciate it if you’d go over it again.

BROWN: When I first saw Crumb’s stuff I thought it was disgusting, and I didn’t like it at all.

GRAMMEL: Was that R. Crumb’s Carload o’ Comics, or just one of his comic books?

BROWN: It would’ve been just his comic books. I don’t think Carload o’ Comics was out at that time. But in this bookstore in Montreal they had a section devoted to underground comix, and they had a whole bunch of Zaps and Big Ass and all kinds of stuff. And so I looked through them and Crumb was just too disgusting for me at that time.

GRAMMEL: What was disgusting about it?

BROWN: All the sex he put in it. All the girls and everything. It wasn’t that I had anything against cheesecake, but this was just going too far for me at that point.

GRAMMEL: It goes beyond cheesecake. [laughter] OK, let’s talk about when you got beyond that, and everybody else in the underground field.

BROWN: Yeah, it took me quite a few years. I think the book that really turned things… Well, for one thing, I was really getting into Rich Tremblay’s stuff, and he was confessing that he was really into Crumb and all these other underground people. And he would write about it in his comic strips — how much they had influenced him. So I knew that this was the original source of all this stuff that I was finding interesting in Tremblay’s work.

But it took me still quite a few years to actually be able to look at that stuff and like it. And I think the book that really turned it around for me was… What was the thing called? It was some collection of underground comix.

GRAMMEL: There was one that had different artists, had a little write-up about them, and had 10 or 12 pages of each…

BROWN: Yeah, that’s the one. [The Apex Treasury of Underground Comics] It had a whole bunch of stuff, and I was really impressed with Spiegelman’s stuff in there. He had that first Maus story and some other stuff, and I really thought he was great. And Crumb had a couple of pieces in there and, yeah, that’s the first time I really, really liked Crumb’s stuff and recognized that he did have something to say beyond… I don’t know, sex, whatever. Bill Griffith was in there.

GRAMMEL: So what was it about Spiegelman’s work that interested you?

BROWN: Um…

GRAMMEL: How did you react when you read Ace Hole or Maus?

BROWN: Hmm…

GRAMMEL: They blew my mind. I mean, Ace Hole is just one of those stories that I can look on as a focal point for —

BROWN: Yeah, Ace Hole was good. It didn’t blow my mind. The Spiegelman strip that really blew my mind was that one where he cut up those Rex Morgan strips [Nervous Rex].

GRAMMEL: OK, that would be in Arcade.

BROWN: Yeah. Although I… Did I see it..? Yeah, I saw it first in Arcade, that’s right. I managed to find those in some secondhand bookstore or something — the old Arcades. And, yeah, that one really… I remember I was riding on the subway and reading that, and it just — like I said — blew me away.

GRAMMEL: Did you really start collecting undergrounds at this point?

BROWN: Yeah, I was looking at undergrounds more carefully at this point, and picking them up. You know, picking up the ones that looked interesting to me. I don’t have a large collection, but I have quite a few. Certainly I have more superhero comics [laughter], but they weren’t that easy to find at that point.

GRAMMEL: So you went to college for roughly a year, and then you took a year off and you didn’t work?

BROWN: Yup.

GRAMMEL: How did you live? Cheaply?

BROWN: I just lived at my dad’s place. I said, “I’d like to quit college and just get a job and do my artwork on the side.” And he said, “No. If you want to do good stuff you’re not going to be able to concentrate on your artwork if you have a full-time job, so why don’t you take off some time and build up a good portfolio, and then take it around to different…” You know, get a good art job or whatever. So I took off pretty much a year, and then just worked on — or tried to work on — my art. It didn’t actually work out that way, but that was the idea.

GRAMMEL: How did you support yourself before Yummy Fur became viable as a support?

BROWN: Well, when I realized that I should get a job, that I’d lived too long on my dad’s charity, I moved to Toronto and got a job at this place called Galbraith Reproductions working as what was called a Darkroom Technician printing photographs.

GRAMMEL: Is there anything interesting about your time at Galbraith that we should know about? Did you become interested in photography?

BROWN: No, not really. The only interesting thing about the place was the people I’d meet there, and one in particular, a guy called Mark Laba who was involved in the small-press movement in Toronto. Mark is a writer, and also he did a bit of cartooning on the side. He said, “Why don’t we put out a comic book together?” And I said, “Sure. Sounds good to me.” So he was really involved in small-press publishing — small-press poetry, fiction, all this kind of stuff — and so he said, “Why don’t we do it this way. It’s cheaper, easier, whatever.’’ We were going to do it in the same format that Yummy Fur eventually came out in. But one thing or another happened and he quit Galbraith, and we stopped seeing each other, or something. So I just kind of forgot about it. And I probably wouldn’t have done anything. I really needed someone there pushing me, so I kind of gave up on the idea. Figured I’d continue sending this stuff out to other publishers.

GRAMMEL: So at this point you’re doing the kind of work we’re seeing in Yummy Fur now?

BROWN: Yeah, the short pieces.

GRAMMEL: So you’re not sending this in to Marvel or DC?

BROWN: Oh, no. I’m sending this off to Raw and Last Gasp — underground publishers, alternative publishers.

GRAMMEL: What kind of encouragement were you getting from them, or lack thereof? Did you send anything to Fantagraphics?

BROWN: Uh, yeah. I think I did. Although when I sent [work] to them they weren’t… They hadn’t started really publishing comics at that point. When I submitted something to them they hadn’t yet put out Love and Rockets. So they said, “Well, we’re not publishing comics.”

1980 TCJ rejection letter (for Brown's fan art)

GRAMMEL: What did Raw say? I heard they almost printed the pigs story.

BROWN: That’s right. Raw sent back a great rejection letter. It was hilarious. I lost it a long time ago. I wish I still had it. It was saying, kind of, “We like this. We almost printed it. But we think you can do better.” So…

GRAMMEL: Was it intentionally funny?

BROWN: It was a form letter rejection. They’d have, “We are rejecting this because: a) you can’t draw; b) you can’t write.” Whatever, so they had all the right things checked off letting me know that they thought I was talented. And also they wrote — I guess it was Art — added a little note at the bottom saying that they’d almost published it.

GRAMMEL: So nothing happened from this area.

BROWN: So nothing happened from this area. My friend Kris who was also a part of the Toronto small press crowd at that time — I actually met her through Mark — saw all this stuff here, all these comics that I was submitting to different places, and said, “Why don’t you put it out yourself?” I didn’t really want to, but Kris was pushing me so much that I felt kind of obligated. And one night she took me down to John Cuny’s place — John Cuny’s a small-press publisher here — and his place was stuffed with all these things he’d published in all these different formats he’s published them in. It was really exciting to see all his stuff, and he’d done it all himself.

He’d published all this stuff. And that really got me going, really got me excited about self-publishing. So after that Kris didn’t need to… Well, she was still pushing me. But I went home with all these ideas in my head, and I was already designing it in my head. And I’d already got some work done in setting up a comic book in this format with Mark — in the comic book we were going to put out together. So I just took the work I’d already done and called it Yummy Fur and put it out.

Kris’s involvement was really important, though. She went out and asked other self-publishers for advice and went around to all the printers and priced them and got samples of their work to show me. She gave as much help and support as was humanly possible. I wouldn’t have gotten into it if it hadn’t been for her.

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2 Responses to The Chester Brown Interview

  1. Pingback: Tea With Chris: Empty Cans of Beer | Back to the World

  2. MatthewThurber says:

    BROWN: Well, actually, I’m picking them up because I’m getting them free. [At the editing stage I’m no longer getting it free; Bill apparently can’t be bothered to mail me copies from Picton so I’m actually PAYING FOR IT now.]

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