I first discovered Jesse Reklaw’s work at a zine fair, where I found his little book Applicant on a seller’s table. The cover photo is what got me, a frowny-serious, horn-rimmed ’60s fellow staring baldly into the camera. The paperback, published by Microcosm, is a small collection of stark, unintentionally funny headshots like this one. They’re pictures of applicants to a Ph.D. science program at an Ivy League university from between 1965-1975, accompanied by the surprisingly personal, even disturbing comments made by their interviewers. (“Hardly the life of the party type!” chuckles one.) In his introduction Reklaw describes finding the discarded applications in a recycling bin: such a coup. Subversive and funny, Applicant has become something of modern zine classic.
But Reklaw is a comics artist and his main gig is Slow Wave, a weekly comic that depicts readers’ dreams, which they submit via email. He’s been drawing it since 1995 and publishing it primarily in alt weeklies around the country. But as the papers have made more and more cutbacks he’s put it online at slowwave.com and focused more on its life as a webcomic. In this format Reklaw has added color and experimented with linking the strips into one continuous story. So far two book collections of the strip have been produced, Dreamtoons (Shambhala, 2000) and The Night of Your Life (Dark Horse, 2008).
His most recent book is Ten Thousand Things to Do, a thick little brick of a book he self-published in 2010 in an edition of 250. (He intends to print it again if he can find a publisher.) TTTTD is a collection of the daily diary comics he drew for a year; the art has a scribbly quality that feels more off-the-cuff than his tidy, Dan Clowes-style work for Slow Wave, and the content is fascinating in the way that only the most intimately mundane details of other people’s lives can be. In his introduction he cites as his inspiration a perzine called Ten Thousand Things, in which author K.D. Schmitz describes his experience with clinical depression. Reading the zine, Reklaw had his first inkling that he might suffer from depression himself — and symptoms like chronic body pain, obsessive thoughts, and irregular sleep are among the things he chronicles in his own diary. (That, and the day-to-day of trying to make a living as an artist while cleaning up after his ever-barfing cats.) He writes: “It’s difficult to discuss something so powerful yet subjective as depression without sounding either whiny or defensive, but comics have an inherent levity and casual poise that ease this.”
For a couple of weeks I talked to him over email about his work, his ideas, and his life.
TCJ: You just got back from the Stumptown Comics Fest. How was it? Did you find any comics you’re excited about?
REKLAW: So much good stuff there! Julia Gfroerer’s new mini Too Dark to See was excellent. Levon Jihanian’s first issue of Danger Country looks like it will kick off a really fun series, if he keeps it up. The new Elfworld edited & designed by Francois Vigneault is a beautiful package. I enjoyed Daria Tessler’s story in there — wish she’d do more comics! And the Play Overlord book by Sean Christensen, Amy Kuttab, and Theo Ellsworth had some hilarious moments and inspiring characters. There could be a new comic book series for every character they created for that book. (I just realized all my favorite books from Stumptown are minicomics that I saw performed at readings Thursday & Friday night. Not sure if that’s just a coincidence, or if hearing someone read their comics enhances the experience?) ….
OK, I just looked at my stack from the show, and here’s a few more I liked (that weren’t read to me like I was a 5-year-old): Dave Kiersh’s Dirtbags (Dave K = always great), Ansis Purins’ Zombre #2 (so cool to see more by Ansis — I was afraid he’d quit comics), and a bunch of minis by Kelly Froh. I wish there was a big book collection of all Kelly’s minis!
TCJ: You know, I don’t think I have ever heard a reading from comics before. Was it a dramatic reading, like a performance?
REKLAW: It’s a mild performance. Basically it’s a PowerPoint presentation, with each slide being one panel of the comic. The cartoonist reads all the narration and dialog (sometimes with help from friends and/or sound effects). Hearing someone read their own work adds all the nuances of intonation and different voices. But it’s not too theatery.
TCJ: Where did you grow up?
REKLAW: Around the suburbs of Sacramento, CA. My high school was the same one Molly Ringwald went to. (And Adrian Tomine.)
TCJ: You live in Portland, which is like the zine Mecca to me. In a way you and I are part of the same community, since I make zines too and I first found Applicant at a zine fest. Does Portland have a vibrant community of artists, as it seems? Is being a part of that energy helpful to your work?
REKLAW: I moved here five years ago because I had to live in a city with a large arty comics community, and San Francisco got too expensive. I probably wouldn’t have known what a great city Portland was if I hadn’t started coming here in the 90s for the Portland Zine Symposium (which is an awesome show that I still attend, even though I’m feeling kind of old there). I definitely need the energy and support of other working artists/friends.
TCJ: I’ve always felt that there’s a different perception of people who publish their own comics and people put out their own writing, even if the medium is the same, like with zines/minicomics. It seems like there’s a respected tradition within comics of putting out your own stuff. Am that right about that? What was your first experience of seeing your work in print?
REKLAW: As long as I’ve been reading comics there have been respected self-publishers, like Dave Sim (Cerebus) and Wendy & Richard Pini (Elfquest) … though now that I think about it, those two probably wouldn’t have been so successful at it without the support and assistance from their partners (Deni Loubert really kept Cerebus on track during those first five years or so). I believe there have been just as many respected and successful self-publishers of books. But maybe since comics is such a smaller industry, its self-publishers stand out more?
My first work in print was a fan letter and accompanying drawing in issue #9 of Boris the Bear (1987 — I was 16). The following year my dad printed some minicomics that he wrote and I drew.
TCJ: Okay yeah, you talked about your publishing history in the first issue of your new minicomic, N.Y.D.I. #1 (No, You Do It), your response to the ethos of DIY. The funniest part is your realization that doing it DIY might be pointless or even socially selfish: “The ultimate DIY self-publisher would also be the self-customer. I would write, edit, design, print, distribute, sell, buy, and read my own work. Why publish at all? Why not just sit on the couch and thing about stuff?!”
So what do you think, have you answered the question you posed yourself – “After self-publishing for 20 years, what’s next?”
REKLAW: If I told told you it would be a spoiler to the last issue of the mini-comic!
TCJ: Your bio on Wikipedia tells me you studied toward a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence. What was your area of interest in this field? Do you continue to work in the field, or with the ideas in some way?
REKLAW: Programming computers always fascinated me. I think it helped me see how my own mental processes worked, or at least gave me insights into perception and understanding. Also, even though I wanted to be an artist, I thought I should have a plan B occupation. I got paid to go to grad school in computer science and the closest discipline I could find to comics was computer vision, which proved to be pretty helpful later on. I know why and when to use a JPEG vs. a TIF, how texture affects composition, when to close lines, etc. I’m teaching a class this May at the IPRC (Independent Publishing Resource Center) here in Portland that I’m calling “Image Science.” It’s basically a Photoshop & pre-press class, but from a theoretical standpoint, mixing in stuff I learned about human+computer vision.
TCJ: This is so interesting. If I understand you correctly you’re saying that computer vision means teaching/programming a computer to “see,” which in turn taught you about what we humans are doing when we see?
REKLAW: Yeah, and in the same way learning how to program computers helped me understand how my own brain solved problems.
TCJ: This stuff is so neat. It makes me think of how linguistics, like the study of language and the brain, can intersect with the creative aspect of writing. I saw Lynda Barry speak at the Free Library in Philadelphia last month and she talked about research that shows how writing by hand activates the parts of the brain involved with thinking and memory in a way that typing on a keyboard does not. On a personal level she also told us that she tried to write a novel on her computer and couldn’t — it was only when she decided to PAINT each word with a brush that she was able to write the book.
REKLAW: Lynda Barry is an awesome speaker (and cartoonist!). I usually write comics in thumbnail format, so I’m using my hand-brain and also getting some idea of how the visual rhythm and flow will work (or won’t work). But I do write often on the computer too — it’s just a lot faster for me (and also easier to organize my thoughts).
TCJ: Were you in school when you found the trashed files you ended up using in Applicant?
REKLAW: I had just quit. Sometimes I think of Applicant as my “Masters Thesis.” I was pretty disgusted with the academic system and the emotional retardation of science professors. Finding all those files that exposed their (unscientific) prejudices was electrifying. I’m glad I knew about the zine community or I would never have been able to spread the information I found. (No book publisher would risk the lawsuits.)
TCJ: Did you first publish Applicant as a zine then?
REKLAW: Yes. I printed & assembled about one thousand on my own (mostly stolen copies via Yale University) before Microcosm agreed to publish it. I tried a few other publishers first, but Microcosm was the first to shrug at the the legal/financial liability.
TCJ: In your intro to The Night of Your Life you talk about how comics give you the ability to tell stories economically. I like this observation and thought about it while I read your diary comics in TTTTD. When you only have 4 small panels you have to choose carefully what you’ll say. Did you find it hard to decide what was worth telling about each day? Did keeping the diary reveal anything to you about your life?
REKLAW: Sometimes there was too much in one day, and then too little in the next. I did cheat a few times and “flashback” to something I couldn’t fit in earlier. Keeping the diary pretty much proved to me that I have a bipolar mood disorder. But I’m still waiting to get medical confirmation of that. Keeping the diary also revealed to me that I can get more done if I stick to a schedule. It’s hard to do it on my own though, without feedback from readers. I loved posting the diary on Flickr and getting immediate comments.
TCJ: Do you think you’d do another project like that one, then, where you can get that immediate kind of feedback?
REKLAW: I guess that’s what slowwave.com is supposed to do. It gets harder and harder each year to keep up “traffic” on my personal site though, as things migrate to corporate-owned media like facebook, etc. I suspect it won’t be long before you can’t have your own website, but can only blog on amazon reviews or something.
TCJ: Speaking of Slow Wave, I’m interested in your relationship to dreams and sleep. In TTTTD you record your daily sleep patterns, which are fairly erratic, and of course you’ve been doing Slow Wave for 15+ years now. What gave you the idea to read and translate people’s dreams in that way? Is your own dream life pretty prominent for you?
REKLAW: Sleeping a little extra helps you dream more, so there’s usually more to remember. Keeping a morning journal will help with dream recall too. I started drawing dreams because I wanted to work with others’ writing (so I could focus on improving my cartooning — I didn’t like my own writing at the time), and it just so happened that the writing I liked best was their dreams. Partly because it was less forced, and partly because I like weird stories. My dream life is pretty prominent to me, and I incorporate many of my own dreams into my writing.
TCJ: Can I make a confession? One of the most boring things to me is when some person you know starts telling you about the dream they had the night before. It’s like, that didn’t really happen, who cares. But retold by someone as, else a comic – it makes for fascinating, funny reading. The quick 4-panel format might also be a part of what makes it work. How did you first come up with the idea?
REKLAW: While I was in college, in order to focus on my drawing, I stopped writing my own material and instead asked friends for stories to draw: they could be anecdotes, fiction, dreams, whatever. All of the stories were fun to draw, but I felt an immediate connection to the dreams. They had compelling imagery, their own logic, and a natural dada-like humor. Drawing them was like being there in the dream, experiencing the mind of the dreamer, but also realizing my own perceptions through theirs. It was like floating in that infinite reflection between two mirrors.
TCJ: So when should I use a TIF vs. a JPG? Or is that too involved to get into here?
REKLAW: I guess it’s sort of involved. Basically TIFs (and GIFs and PNGs) are best for line art & flat color, while JPGs are best for photos and paintings. But one should always save archival scans in a lossless format like TIF. I’d be happy to explain this to anyone, over a three-hour workshop.
Find Slow Wave strips, books to buy, and information about Jesse’s workshop at slowwave.com.