The Chester Brown Interview

GRAMMEL: l don’t want to carry this too far, but you do have a character in Yummy Fur called Chet. Is there some fundamental kinship between the themes embodied by Chet and your own concerns?

BROWN: No. I didn’t know that Chet would grow into the character that he developed into when I first introduced him to the book. He was just the character who lost his hand. And that was one of my phobias, because if I lost my hand I wouldn’t be able to draw. So I just named him Chet because of that.

GRAMMEL: I have to say that when he killed Josie it was probably one of the most shocking things I’d ever seen in a comic. And I qualify that only because I’ve since read of Tonantzin’s death.

Ed The Happy Clown ©1992 Chester Brown

BROWN: Didn’t he handle it great, though? You come to the end of the story and they have that black page, and you turn it over and there’s the color picture other standing there looking out at the reader. That was… I mean, you finish the story and you flip it, and there she is. It’s like she’s alive again! It was brilliant.

GRAMMEL: “The Eyelid Burial” in issue #2 is impenetrable. Was that an experiment?

BROWN: It was an experiment. I don’t think it’s an experiment that worked, and I’m not too pleased looking back on it.

GRAMMEL: Was that a form of automatic writing?

BROWN: It was throwing together a whole bunch of things. Just images with words that didn’t necessarily fit with them and stuff. You really want to hear the story behind this? I had done a story with someone — which was “The Eyelid Burial” — and he wasn’t pleased with how it turned out. I still liked the pictures fine, so I thought, “Well, why don’t I just put a whole bunch of words in here that don’t make sense with the pictures, and let’s see how it works.” [Laughter.] It’s kind of embarrassing.

GRAMMEL: At the conclusion of the mini-dimensional storyline it ends with the revelation that the mini-dimension planet is one in which everyone is homosexual or bisexual.

BROWN: I’m glad you caught that distinction.

GRAMMEL: How did you come to such a liberal viewpoint? Were your parents liberal?

BROWN: Not really. My dad thinks homosexuality is perversion, so… [laughs] I didn’t get it from him. I think my mom probably would have thought the same. I don’t know, it just seemed sensible to me.

GRAMMEL: Does your father read your comics?

BROWN: Uh… no. He stopped after the fifth minicomic, the “Ed and the Beanstalk.”

GRAMMEL: Just wasn’t interested?

BROWN: No, he was… Well, he was interested in my stuff, but he just found it too offensive to his tastes.

GRAMMEL: The police, doctors, scientists, the institutions that we were raised to respect the most seem to come off the worst in Yummy Fur. Are you as disillusioned with institutions in general as your work might suggest?

BROWN: To some extent, I guess. I mean, we all hear horror stories about them. Although, on another level, it also seems a bit old hat. I mean, drawing police in a bad light goes back to the old underground stuff. There’s nothing really new in that.

GRAMMEL: Do you find the scientific view of life rather dense and limiting? Beyond the malevolence of some of your scientists there seems to be a distance from life, from sexuality, from their own selves.

BROWN: Um… no. I have nothing against scientists. No.

GRAMMEL: Do you have any idea where the “Adventures from Science’’ comes from?

BROWN: No, I don’t know what brought it on.

GRAMMEL: Here’s a Journal question. See how I always feel silly asking these?

BROWN: I know. [Laughs.] I’ve noticed.

GRAMMEL: Do you think that the current social climate is antagonistic toward sexuality in general? I mean, look at Ed — who may not be a symbol intentionally — but here’s a guy who’s been very separate from himself sexually; he’s had his penis talk back to him, he’s had other people’s penises added on to his. He seems to be having troubles.

BROWN: Uh-huh.

GRAMMEL: Is Ed gay?

BROWN: No. I don’t think of him as being gay. Well, Ed looks very… He’s drawn with that big head. He looks kind of like a big kid. And, in my head, I don’t think of Ed’s sexuality as being fully formed. He’s kind of like an adult who’s pre-adolescent. Somehow. I don’t know why. [Laughter.] I guess I should develop that more.

GRAMMEL: Is Ed the Happy Clown the protagonist of Yummy Fur? Is he always going to be the constant in Yummy Fur?

BROWN: Oh, I don’t know if he’ll always be. He is now. But it’s going to be whatever I feel like doing, and if I want to kill off Ed the Happy Clown then I will. I’m not going to be worried about that.

GRAMMEL: Is drawing from life an interest these days?

BROWN: No, I almost never do. It’s more fun sketching what’s in my head.

GRAMMEL: Did you ever study an artist? The pacing of Carl Barks, or the black-spotting of Will Eisner?

BROWN: I wouldn’t think of it in that way. I’d just look at it and maybe copy it. Try and draw a certain panel the way that whatever artist I was looking at had.

GRAMMEL: So you think it was basically picked up from reading so many comics?

BROWN: Pretty much, yeah.

GRAMMEL: I’m curious, because some artists really seem to study other artists’ work. For example, did you see Steve Rude’s Mister Miracle? Kirby could have done the layouts.

BROWN: But there are quite a few artists like that. Have you seen Ron Frenz’s work at Marvel?

GRAMMEL: Is he the one who’s doing Thor now?

BROWN: Yeah, the one who’s doing Thor.

GRAMMEL: Well, now we’re getting to a whole other animal.

BROWN: You think so?

GRAMMEL: Well, Rude has made it his own. He’s integrated the information into his own work. Do you think Frenz has done that?

BROWN: Well, no. Frenz looks like Jack Kirby almost line for line.

GRAMMEL: And when he did Spider-Man it looked a lot like Steve Ditko.

BROWN: Uh… not to me.

GRAMMEL: Well, I think he was trying.

BROWN: Yeah. He’s a better Kirby imitator than a Ditko.

GRAMMEL: Earlier you said you’d wanted to be like Berni Wrightson or Jim Aparo.

BROWN: But that was, like, [age] 15 or 16. They were certainly major influences on my work. I can still see their influence there.

GRAMMEL: Do you think from your interests in mainstream comics that you are interested in a nice looking “package’’ as opposed to the underground artists who can be much more laissez faire about a nice inking style, whether the lettering is nice? What impressed me when I first saw your work was that it was professional-looking.

BROWN: Really? No, I didn’t care. I was getting to the point where that kind of stuff wasn’t important to me. Although my lettering has developed over the years. I’m putting together these books [a Yummy Fur compilation] so I’m having to look at the older stuff, and I’m amazed at how awful my lettering was back in ’83 or ’82. It’s changed a lot since then. I want to be a good cartoonist, but certain things, like whether I got a line perfectly straight or whether my lettering was going up and down, these didn’t seem to be important things. I felt very free not having to rule my lines or lettering.

GRAMMEL: I want to talk about what tools you use because that isn’t usually discussed in interviews.

BROWN: I know, it’s interesting. But also, I remember Eisner at one point in one interview told how he used the brush for the figures and the crowquill for the backgrounds, right? And after that it ruined me for reading Eisner because I was always looking at the technique. I’d see the brushline for the figures and the pen in the background. And before that I hadn’t noticed, but after that’s all I could see. If you discuss technique people will be looking at your technique. You know, it kind of makes me nervous. Don’t feel you have to restrain yourself.

GRAMMEL: The story in issue #1 of Yummy Fur, “The Toilet Paper Revolt,” looks like Radiograph.

BROWN: That was Rapidograph, I think. No, crowquill pen, probably. Then I went to brush, and brush is still my favorite tool. If I had the time I’d use that exclusively, but I can’t be fast with brush. And if I am fast I don’t like the results. Issue #5, that’s brush, but it looks rushed to me, and it was rushed. So I said, “I’ve got to do something else,” so I went to just printing my pencils, basically.

"The Toilet Paper Revolt" ©1980 Chester Brown

GRAMMEL: What other kinds of materials do you use?

BROWN: I use regular typewriter paper, I guess. Some kind of bond paper.

GRAMMEL: You don’t do a whole page on an 8 1/2×11 sheet of typewriter paper?

BROWN: No, I do each panel on a separate piece of paper. And each panel is 5 x 5. When the story’s finished, then I put all the panels together as pages.

GRAMMEL: So you have your blank sheet of paper in front of you…

BROWN: And then I start sketching with a light blue pencil, sketch out the basic outlines of the figure, and then I take an HB pencil and redraw it all, and then a thick brush and put it in the dark areas and the blacks. Usually I just kind of vaguely sketch things in, a circle for a head and everything. At that stage — at the blue pencil stage — I don’t put in too many details unless it’s really important. If a character’s expression is really important in that panel then I might, at the blue pencil stage, put in the expression and everything. But usually most of the work is done at the HB pencil stage.

GRAMMEL: How is your work printed from pencils?

BROWN: We photocopy the pencils and print from the photocopies. The photocopies are nice and black, and make sure that the printer will have something black to print from.

GRAMMEL: Not a Photostat?

BROWN: Nope. I did do Photostats for the minicomics because when I was working at Galbraith I could make Photostats myself for free. But when I have to pay for them it’s another matter. It’s easier to just go with photocopies.

GRAMMEL: Are you printing from your pencils by choice or due to time constraints?

BROWN: Time is a factor. It is quicker to do it that way. But I like doing it also because your drawings are more spontaneous that way. I like how the artwork turns out that way.

GRAMMEL: I was looking at issue #4′s brushwork and it looks like you had a lot of time to work on it.

BROWN: No, I didn’t. I did it in the regular two months.

GRAMMEL: Well, the first three issues were just reprints of what you ‘d already done, so I just assumed.

BROWN: Yeah, but Bill… You see, Bill and I only signed a contract for the first three issues, and then if those first three did well he would sign me on to do Yummy Fur as a regular, continuing series after that. So he was putting off signing me until just about the last minute. So I really only had two months to draw #4, even though I could have had a lot longer. I was working at Galbraith, and I didn’t want to quit until I had an assurance of making money as a comic-book artist.

GRAMMEL: When you’re drawing these pages do you know how much text is going into each panel?

BROWN: Not always. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I’ll have a script in front of me — like, maybe a script for that page or scene. But often I don’t. Often I just draw the panel and then write in the dialogue afterward. It depends.

GRAMMEL: In Escape you did “An American Story,” I believe.


GRAMMEL: I would have placed that second, behind “The Eyelid Burial,’’ in order of the stories that left me with big question marks hanging over my head. [Chester laughs.] Was this another experiment? Were you winging this story?

BROWN: Yeah. I don’t know. You’re just supposed to kind of enjoy it as it goes along. Enjoy the ride. I still like that strip. I think it’s fun.

©1986 Chester Brown

GRAMMEL: When I first read “The Gourmets From Planet X” in Honk! #1 the first thing I thought was, “Oh, Chester’s covering snots.” Was that the impetus?

BROWN: Yup. Actually, I haven’t covered snots quite enough. I’m sure I’ll be getting back to them at some point in the future in Yummy Fur. There’s still lots more material there to be had. To be mined.

GRAMMEL: Do you ever worry that you’re going too far?

BROWN: No, no. No, I never worry that I’m going to go too far.

GRAMMEL: It’s interesting that you’ve gone from thinking Crumb’s work is too much to the point where I’m sure many people would think your own work is too much.

BROWN: Yeah, but as far as I go in Yummy Fur Crumb’s gone so much farther.

GRAMMEL: Is doing this work freeing you up, opening you up on a personal basis?

BROWN: Um… yeah.

GRAMMEL: Is there the feeling that you want to defuse these things for yourself?

BROWN: Yeah, probably.


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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