The Dutch graphic designer and artist Joost Swarte, a giant of European cartooning since the 1970s and ’80s and a leading exemplar of the “ligne claire” style, is not a very familiar figure in the U.S., where he is known primarily for his work for Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s Raw and Little Lit series, European comics re-presented in the American Heavy Metal magazine and frequent illustrations for The New Yorker, including the cover. His design work has been seen on books like R. Crumb’s record cover collection and Odds and Ends, both published in English and French, but first published by Oog & Blik, the major Dutch publisher co-founded (with Hansje Joustra) by Swarte in 1992. In Europe, Swarte is known for his characters Jopo and Dr. Ben and Dee, published in such magazines as Vrij Nederland and Humo. He has been a prolific illustrator and designer of posters for events such as the Holland Animated Film Festival, and his work is often seen on European CD covers. Where Le Corbusier is better known for his architecture than for his paintings, collages and drawings, Swarte has moved in the opposite direction, making a name for himself first as a cartoonist and illustrator and in more recent years branching into architectural work and stained-glass widows, even creating furniture and fonts. He has worked with architects on the design of the Toneelschuur Theater in Haarlem and is a major consultant and contributor to the design of the Herge Museum in Belgium. Swarte founded Stripdagen, a biennial international comics festival in Haarlem, in 1990 and has himself been the subject of many exhibitions, including the World Exposition of Joost Swarte, which has traveled throughout Europe. I had Swarte’s home phone number from my contact in Germany, a comics dealer named ebi wilke. So one Monday morning in February, I pick up the phone and place an international call to a number in the Netherlands — in Haarlem to be precise. I tell the woman who answers, “I’m looking for Joost Swarte,” and after a short pause, a low but confident, friendly, male voice, with a slight Dutch accent announces, “Joost Swarte.” (pronounced Yost Svarta). I come straight to the point: “Can I interview you? Would now be a good time?””
“You mean now, over the phone? “ he asks incredulously.
“Well, yes, I guess so …” So I get started. My first question stumps him and he doesn’t know what to say at first. He has to think about it for a while before he says anything and then he proceeds to answer my question in no less than 741 words. He is very articulate, well versed in art, architecture and the history of industrial design, as well as music and comics. And, I might add, he speaks fluent English.
— David Peniston
Interview conducted over a number of sessions by David Peniston and Kim Thompson.
KIM THOMPSON: One thing I didn’t realize until I saw it on your CV is that you were knighted a few years ago.
JOOST SWARTE: Yes, that’s right.
THOMPSON: Does that mean we have to call you “Sir Joost”?
SWARTE: No, it doesn’t work this way. How does it work? I don’t know exactly, but at a certain moment, you’re invited to come to the town hall, and the mayor, in the name of the Queen of the Netherlands, pins a nice-colored ribbon with a sort of a cross on it on you. And, well, there you are.
THOMPSON: So you didn’t actually get to meet the Queen, she didn’t tap you on the shoulder or anything?
SWARTE: [Laughs.] No, unfortunately not. But you are invited to become a member of the elite of the country, something like that. I have it in a little drawer here in my desk, and only when I pick up my faxes do I see it, and that’s enough.
THOMPSON: Are you the only cartoonist in the Netherlands to be thus honored?
SWARTE: I don’t think so. I think Marten Toonder must have had one. He’s sort of the godfather of comics in Holland. Other than that, I’m not sure.
THOMPSON: What specifically did you receive it for? Was it more for your comics, for the design work, the theater…?
SWARTE: They don’t specify. There’s a committee that selects people who’ve done something that benefits the society they live in. So, initiating a cultural festival — the Stripdagen festival here in Haarlem — I guess that must have been played some part. And having a comic artist who is, how would you say, enlarging his borders, designing a theater, making stained-glass windows, has had a wide field of artistic preoccupations — maybe that helped. But I’m not sure. They don’t communicate the reason why. I think they’re wise not to.
THOMPSON: Your career has been so eclectic, it’s hard to even guess.
SWARTE: Yes, that’s right. There are some artists, in the past, if I look at their career, you get the idea that it is possible to go in a variety of directions. Lyonel Feininger made woodcuts as well as comics and wooden toys, etc., as well as being known as a painter. So he was a great creative man. And you have in Holland, of course, Theo Von Doesburg, who was the founder of De Stijl movement, he also worked on a variety of things. He made stained-glass windows and architecture — he built only one little house, but he worked with architecture and interior decorations and he was also a poet.
THOMPSON: And you have Art Spiegelman composing an opera…
SWARTE: Absolutely. Art is one of the gang! And there’s Mariscal in Barcelona …
THOMPSON: Right, who has designed furniture and all sorts of things. That’s great, of course, but the downside to that, from our perspective as comics readers, is that the more cartoonists expand their horizons in that way, the fewer comics there are. We’re working right now on the complete collection of your comics we’re co-publishing with Oog + Blik next year, and I was surprised to see just how few comics there were.
SWARTE: Well, that’s the comics I made for adults. For children, it was about 400 pages. On the whole, it’s not that little, but I always said to myself, “It’s better to have a small amount of good comics, than a big amount of mediocre comics.”
THOMPSON: [Laughs.] Quality rather than quantity.
SWARTE: Absolutely. And it has also to do with the fact that I tend to go on adventures. And each time you come into a new medium, you have to discuss with people, you have to find out the possibilities — that adventure is part of my life, and I cannot do without it.
HEY KIDS! COMICS!
THOMPSON: I’d like to talk a little about your children’s comics. When you said 400 pages just now, that surprised me, I had no idea it was that much. Much of that must not be in print, then.
SWARTE: That’s right. Only three of the stories were published in book form.
THOMPSON: And that’s “Katoen en Pinbal,” or “Coton et Piston” in French — the characters we published in Measles as Hector and Dexter.
SWARTE: Right. And that’s what’s been published at Casterman Publishers. With the lack of success and the internal problems Casterman was having some years ago, they postponed the two best stories that we had saved to publish last of the five. I had in mind to publish five, and we had an agreement, but they postponed it. And afterwards, I was busy with the theater, and that takes a lot of time. So I just left it for a while. But if the interest is still there, and I can find the time to do the coloring, we’ll publish them as well.
THOMPSON: One would hope that the big book project of your adult comics might re-ignite interest in your children’s comics, because I think they’re wonderful. Now, when you started “Katoen en Pinbal,” you’d only recently started publishing your underground work. How did you go from that to children’s comics? Was this just a job, or was it something you particularly wanted to —
SWARTE: Not really. Underground comics were really my thing — invent your own stories, don’t set yourself any limits: that’s the main thing. But I had to find an income, because underground comics had very low print runs at the time. So at one point a publisher of children’s comics saw my comics for adults and said, “This would be interesting, something like this but for children.” He thought people’s taste in comics was changing, and wanted to experiment by asking me to do children’s comics. After the first meeting, I never thought it was going to happen, but I made, as I’d proposed, 10 short scripts of one page, so I drew two, and I awaited an answer, and it was positive. From the beginning, I thought, “Well, it wasn’t my main goal to make comics for children, but why discriminate against children?” I mean, they have the right to quality as well as adults do. [Laughs.] It was fun to do.
THOMPSON: How many albums’ worth did you actually complete?
SWARTE: Three albums were published, but there were nine stories; on one of them I wrote the script, and I had an assistant make the drawings; he was so very slow that he didn’t end up finishing the whole 40 or 44 pages, and I think his story ended up at page 28. [Thompson laughs.] But the other ones were 40 or 44 pages.
THOMPSON: Do you think that doing these stories taught you anything in terms of your later comics work, just the restrictions, or simply on the technical level?
SWARTE: No, I don’t think so. Just that you have to make your deadline each week.
THOMPSON: That’s a valuable lesson. [Laughs.]
SWARTE: Absolutely, and if you’re not on time, then a week later, it’s not possible to get it colored, and another week later, there’s just going to be a big white space in the magazine. So it taught me that.
THOMPSON: Do you approach your work for kids — such as your Little Lit story or your early “Katoen en Pinbal” — differently from your other work?
SWARTE: Not really. I won’t use complicated words for kids, or refer to politics or sex as I do for adults. But I stay with my liberal anarchistic way of thinking.
THOMPSON: You’re probably best known in the U. S., even now, for your contributions to Raw in the 1980s and 1990s. As an underground cartoonist and reader, I assume you were familiar with Art’s work even before he contacted you about Raw…
SWARTE: Of course, I knew his work. I don’t remember exactly where I first saw it, it could have been in Bijou Funnies, but I’m not sure. And then came Arcade magazine. I was a fan of Art’s work and also of Zippy the Pinhead and Bill Griffith…
Anyway, before Art even started to work on Maus, he visited Amsterdam with his new wife, Françoise Mouly, and he phoned me to ask if we could have a meeting. He would propose to me at that meeting, wouldn’t it be nice if we could publish some of your works in our new magazine, Raw? And we made an appointment at an Amsterdam café, and there on the table he placed two pots of ink, one for him and one for me. At that period, I had a portrait of myself, drinking the ink, dipping my pen in the beer. And Art had, of course, his book Breakdowns, with himself drinking the ink on the cover, so he thought it would be a good opening for our conversation. From the beginning on, we had a very good relationship.
THOMPSON: Most of the work that appeared in Raw was reprinting material from your Dutch undergrounds, although you did some new things, including the famous cover image for Raw #2, right?
SWARTE: Yes, that was done especially for Raw. There was also a story, “Sweet,” that was in Volume 2 #2, I believe. And something later on too, I’m not sure.
THOMPSON: What do you think of Raw as a magazine?
SWARTE: Great. It was a sort of a showcase of everything that was happening in the world, everything of interest.
THOMPSON: Did you enjoy working for it?
SWARTE: Working for Raw was a fantastic experience. I was given all the room I needed. The comment was always intelligent. I felt at home in what I now consider one of the most important periods in my career.
THOMPSON: It was really the first real international magazine to combine all these different and yet related strains of innovative comics of the late ’70s and early ’80s.
SWARTE: And also with a good eye for what had happened in the past. If I remember correctly, there was the article on Henry Darger: that was something that Art gave me. I don’t know if it had been published before or not, but it opened many people’s eyes to this obscure artist. And Fletcher Hanks too, no?
THOMPSON: Yes, they printed a Fletcher Hanks story in RAW. Art and Françoise have very wide-ranging, eclectic and, I think, excellent taste.
THOMPSON: And of course, your relationship continues to this day, with your contributions to Little Lit — and you still work with Françoise on The New Yorker, don’t you?
SWARTE: Not directly. Françoise works on the covers, mostly. I don’t know exactly how it’s divided there, but I work most of the time with Chris Curry.
THOMPSON: What is the origin of your Jopo de Pojo character? What did you hope to accomplish with him?
SWARTE: I think I created him in 1972, together with a bunch of characters: Het Trio Interessant. They were sort of anarchist type characters, like the Marx brothers. There was one with a tin can on his head like Happy Hooligan — a black Tintin — and a rock-and-roll hairdo with an oversized coat. I pressed all their physical characteristics in their head, so that they would stay expressive as a close-up. Jopo de Pojo was also composed from elements of archetypal comic characters.
Consider this an homage to my favorite characters. His golf- trousers come from Tintin. The badge on his jacket is the symbol from the title of the Krazy Kat comics. His head is inspired by old Disney bug characters, and a sort of early Felix the Cat. As I am a music lover I included elements of a musical note in his head. A (shiny) black ball as his head, and a hairdo like the flag. Jopo the Pojo inherited my love and ambition to be a rhythm-and-blues musician — all my doubts and my feelings of not being connected. I never thought I would accomplish anything with him, or with any of my comic characters. My characters help me to express my thoughts, and to make friends with similar ideas.
DAVID PENISTON: How do you color your drawings? Do you use watercolor?
SWARTE: Yes, mainly.
PENISTON: Or gouache?
SWARTE: No, not gouache. When I started, I did it with Pantone dots.
PENISTON: Oh yeah. You cut out the color and pasted it on.
SWARTE: Yes. Though not the color, I didn’t cut out a color. I cut out the percentages in black dots. So I made color separations. And that still helps me. When I now sit beside a technician with a computer I say, “I want a color that’s composed of a 20-percent yellow and of a 10-percent cyan and of a six-percent magenta.” And then we have an off-white newspaper color. And that’s great to do. I mean, they always are astonished that you know which percentages gives what color. But it helped me in that way, but also if I do it with watercolors, with my color inks. I have six pots of color — red, magenta, which is sort of a pink, and then a turquoise blue, and a marine blue, and two different yellows — and I can combine them to whatever color I like. That all comes from these techniques that I learned from doing the separations.
PENISTON: And you don’t have to do separations any more.
SWARTE: No, no. Now we have such great scanners. The first comic that I did, I had made prints, one-time prints on a very solid paper with aluminum in it to avoid shrinkage under the influence of watercolor. The black line of your drawing was on a line film, and the color on this solid sheet was scanned and was printed in color. In these techniques you could come up with a very neat black line. And it was a traditional way of inking or coloring comics. But now you can color it on the original, and you put it on the scanner. If the scanner scans fine enough, you’ll have a very nice black line. So you don’t have to worry about these problems any more. And on your screen, you can make corrections. That’s great. It makes it a lot easier.
PENISTON: So your work now is more in color these days.
SWARTE: Well, depending. I still love just black and white What I often do, when I’m asked to do a poster design, I know that the four-color printing is sort of a, it’s a choice for the poor colors. Because it’s always printed in yellow, cyan, magenta, and black. And the combinations … You cannot make a beautiful turquoise with it. If you combine turquoise, it seems to be nice, but if you compare it to the real stuff, it’s almost gray. So if you want good coloring on a poster — a very, very violent color — then you have to start with other pigments. You have to combine them and come up with the right inks. And I often design posters that don’t start with the four-color printing. But I choose a palette with four different, sharp colors, and I use the combinations of it. That’s a technique that I also used for the poster that I designed together with Charles Burns. There is a black on it. But what I did for that poster is that I decided to color the drawing of Charles’ with three different colors, and not with the four-color idea. And the black in the poster would be — the black in his drawing — would be a combination of the three. So the black in his drawing isn’t totally black. It’s a sort of a dark brownish grayish black. Then what I could do is around it print a matte black ink, and then you get the effect that is similar to what you see in a cinema. A black on a projected screen is not the same black as the surrounding. The surrounding is blacker than the black on the screen. You see it also with television. And that gives a sort of cinema appeal to the poster.
A WEALTH OF INFLUENCES
PENISTON: Can you name a few of your favorite artists or designers that you admire or who have had an influence on your artwork?
SWARTE: Well, when I was still studying industrial design, I learned about artists that worked for the De Stijl movement and the Bauhaus movement.
PENISTON: Like Gerrit Rietveld?
SWARTE: Yes, exactly. And I was very much interested in it because they seemed to work in the artistic field without making a choice on a medium. Rietveld started out as a furniture designer, as a carpenter, and he developed his interest in this field and just enlarged his disciplines. Besides him, there was the Dutch artist Theo Van Doesburg, the leader of the De Stijl movement, and he started within the funny borders of the Dada movement, which had an idealistic side. That is to say that Dada was a reaction to what happened in the First World War and they were artists that didn’t understand that culture, although everybody was always proud of European culture. But even within this culture it was still possible to have a disastrous war like the First World War and they reacted with their Dada movement. Now, I don’t know exactly if the war was the main goal, the impetus for it, or maybe the culture was already ready for a movement like Dada, but they made fun of whatever they liked to make fun of so it was sort of a ‘nothing is sacred’ movement.
SWARTE: Not necessarily “anti-everything” because they had their own things they liked and wanted to do but nothing was sacred, which means also that they almost worshiped individuality so they gave freedom to the artists to do whatever they liked. Now if you at that period had said, “I like to make beautiful paintings,” that wouldn’t be considered as very Dada. But the reaction of the whole European culture, well, it was fun in a way and it made me also think. What made a great impression on me as a youth was the Provo movement in Amsterdam. That was young anarchists that made fun of the police, etc., and I thought it was very funny.
PENISTON: They were against the police?
SWARTE: Yeah, they made fun of the government, the local government, they made fun of the police. They didn’t care.
PENISTON: So, they were anti-establishment?
SWARTE: Absolutely. And that came about the same time when I think rock ’n’ roll was already on its way with pop music and the youngsters letting their hair grow against the will of their parents.
PENISTON: In the early ’60s?
SWARTE: Yes, so all these movements were going on and it separated the youth culture from the official culture.
PENISTON: The generation gap?
SWARTE: Yes, exactly. So that made a great impression on me and I think my interest in Dada came also from what was happening in society at that time. But at the art school — it wasn’t really an art school — when I was 18 years old, after a disastrous high-school period where I didn’t work very much, I was sent to, or chose to go to, a school of industrial design and that grabbed a lot of my interest. I could make nice drawings and had some skills in this field and, besides that, I was interested in technique and technical things. So it was a proper education for me and when I was in this art school, we visited the Van Abbe Museum and saw things from the Bauhaus and the De Stijl period, and at the same time, I saw also pop artists. Many of the American pop-art artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol were shown in this museum. There was a huge show, I think in 1966 in Stockholm, of Andy Warhol and the same exhibition came to Eindhoven, the town where my academy was, where I was studying Industrial Design. It was such a relief to see that, what I always liked in the supermarkets, which was packages lined up in a row and the idea that if you had one ugly package, you have a totally different visual …
SWARTE: Yes. Now there was an artist who accepted package design to show them in a museum but, on the other hand, what my reaction was was if packages from the supermarket are now in a museum, why not consider the supermarkets themselves a museum? So I went to the supermarket with a set of different eyes and I looked at all the things around me and I saw them with a different view, so this was a very influential period in my life.
PENISTON: An eye-opening experience?
SWARTE: Yes, absolutely. And parallel to this in all sorts of magazines and underground magazines that I read I saw the work of, first of all, Willem, a Dutch artist who lived in Paris. That is to say he went to Paris in 1968, but I had read his work before, when he was still living in the Netherlands. That was also quite influential, and the comic stories which I liked as a child, now grew up with my generation, and my generation didn’t want to leave the comics stories in the children’s room and it developed a new field. So after Willem, I saw for the first time the Krazy Kat stories that were reprinted in Holland in a magazine, in a sort of anti-establishment underground magazine. They reprinted Krazy Kat. That was about 1965, I guess it was, and I thought it was absolutely fantastic. And then came the underground movement from the United States like Robert Crumb, and I remember also that I liked very much Skip Williamson at the time, because he had two things: On one hand, he had the freedom of the underground press and, on the other hand, he made drawings very meticulously. That appealed to me as a lover of the De Stijl movement, so that developed continuously. I mean, every time there were new artists coming from the United States that I liked very much, I choose another certain moment. I continued to make drawings while I was studying industrial design —
PENISTON: Kind of on the side? You were making cartoons and comics?
SWARTE: Yes, I decided to make comics and luckily enough I was quite successful from the start. That is to say, I had the possibilities to publish them, which isn’t the same as being financially independent from it. I mean, you cannot earn money with it in the beginning but I had fun making it and people like to read it. That’s the important artists for me but, as I developed my interest in comics as well as fine arts and also architectural design, it was a broad landscape of people that I liked and I learned about photographers like Martin Munkacsi. He was a Hungarian photographer who went to New York and made photos for, I think it was, Vogue magazine. He introduced movement in fashion photography and I liked him very much and Rietveld of course, the Dutch architect, he was very important to me.
PENISTON: I can see that. He’s very clean-line, isn’t he?
SWARTE: Yeah, that’s right, and he’s very sober in surfaces.
PENISTON: And also very colorful.
SWARTE: Yes. And colorful in a way but also a minor thing of these movements was that they restricted their means. For instance, Mondrian, who wasn’t one of my real favorites but I liked him as an artist and from what I read about him and his life, but he restricted too much. He said, “I do just horizontal and vertical because that’s my ideal,” and he had a whole theory around it.
PENISTON: So he was too minimal?
SWARTE: Yes, if you can make fun with your own work then it’s OK, but if you’re going to believe in it, it becomes almost religious and —
PENISTON: It kind of was with him, wasn’t it?
SWARTE: Yes, I guess, but that’s too much for me. I [enjoy] the freedom. You can choose whatever you like; that’s the fun.
PENISTON: Now when did R. Crumb show up in Europe? He started in San Francisco in the 1960s. Did they have Zap Comix in Holland at that time?
SWARTE: Yes. That was very important in Holland and, even before Zap Comix, I already saw or heard of him before. I don’t know, was Zap earlier than Snatch?
PENISTON: About the same time. Zap was the one that made him famous. Snatch and all those other underground, X-rated, adult comics were even more underground than Zap.
SWARTE: Yeah, that was important in Holland. There were people interested in comics and, yeah, there were good comics shops and the first in the world was in Amsterdam: Lambiek’s comics shop. Have you ever seen their website?
PENISTON: Yes I have: It’s huge.
SWARTE: Thousands and thousands of biographies on it.
PENISTON: You have many more comic bookstores and shops and things like that than we do over here.
SWARTE: Well, right. That’s right. In France it is —
PENISTON: Especially in Paris.
SWARTE: But in France and in Belgium and also in Haarlem, they have a lot of comic shops. Down here in Haarlem, which is a town of 150,000 inhabitants, I think there are three comic shops, really specialized comic shops.
SWARTE: And I think that’s a lot.
PENISTON: I can see why you like Rietveld as far as clean line. How about Hergé?
SWARTE: Yeah, of course, of course. He was a major influence. The fun was that at a certain time, I wasn’t too much satisfied with my own drawing skills, my cartoon skills. In the underground, the social comment and the content was the main thing and there were some good artists like R. Crumb but there were also artists who preferred the content to good drawing. I had a very good friendship then with the artist Evert Geradts; he was the artist who created Tante Leny Presenteert [Aunt Leny Presents], which was a Dutch underground comic. I, myself, had my own underground magazine, which was Modern Papier, and from time to time we joined together and he had good contacts with people from the United States and I had more contact with people in Europe. That is to say, to other artists and we exchanged books and we could also always show each other the new acquaintances and he showed me great, great books like the American artist Albert Hurter. I don’t know if you ever heard of him. Do you know who he is?
PENISTON: No, I don’t think I know his work.
SWARTE: Hurter worked for the Disney Studio. He was hired to come up with ideas. There was a fantastic book that I saw at that time with [his] ideas for the toys in the toyshop of Gepetto of the Pinocchio movie from Walt Disney.
PENISTON: So, he created some of those crazy toys in that woodshop?
SWARTE: That’s right. If you see some of the clocks and the crazy things [in the shop], those were invented by Albert Hurter. So that was somebody that you never learned about. I mean, nobody knew it, but I learned it at Evert Geradts’ house and he came also with work by … there was a fantastic reprint by Dover Comics by an American artist Milt Gross, which was called He Done Her Wrong. And it appeared in different titles, I guess, and that was a story, very quickly drawn but absolutely dynamic. That was fantastic. He did a story with no words, and there was only one balloon where the main character in the story needed to tell something that he saw in the past. But how do you tell — no words means always present time that’s happening and that’s evolving into something else. But you follow the timeline. But at a certain moment you can, if you want to, tell something from the past. And he solved the problem by a text balloon. And in the balloon he drew an eye and he drew a saw, which phonetically says “I saw.” [Laughs.] He solved it that way. This sort of freedom that this artist took, this Milt Gross, that was fantastic. Fantastic. That was a great story. Sort of a love story which was so efficient and lively. It was so funny. I mean all these things. From my side, I found books from artists like John Held. What I know from him is he made, in the ’30s, illustrations and covers for a magazine and he made woodcuts and road maps, maps of the United States and he was a great, great artist. Very, very great, nice art-deco style things that he made.
PENISTON: He is an old-time illustrator, even before Hergé’s time.
SWARTE: Yeah, I think he worked in Esquire.
PENISTON: Yeah, Esquire, Time and Life magazine, and I think even Vogue.
SWARTE: That’s right, Vogue too.
PENISTON: And he has a great style of illustration that’s very similar to yours.
SWARTE: Yeah, yeah, he was an influence, no doubt. I found these books on these artists always in Amsterdam. There was an underground comic shop called Real Free Press, and they were interested also in illustration, etc., and a lot of these artists I discovered through books that I bought at this shop.
PENISTON: When you were young.
SWARTE: Not really, I mean, I was about 20 … maybe 25 or something, or 22 or something, I don’t remember exactly. But this John Held Jr., he was great. I mean the poses of his figures and his stylish, elegant way of making his illustrations. And then he also did comics. No, I loved it.
PENISTON: Yeah, his illustrations are very comical. And his caricatures that he draws remind me a lot of yours, the way he draws the nose and the round face.
SWARTE: The round head, yeah.
PENISTON: Like Hergé does with Tintin.
SWARTE: Yeah, the older Tintins you see it, too. And I also bought once a book he did on “Frankie and Johnny,” this song, illustrated in woodcuts. It was great. And he made maps. Yeah, whole countries, etc. But beautiful, beautiful. How do you say, a cartographer?
PENISTON: Yeah. A cartographer. So you first saw his stuff when you were in your 20s, in this bookstore?
SWARTE: I guess so, yes.
PENISTON: Who else did you see in this bookstore?
SWARTE: Of course, there was the old Popeye by Segar. That’s great stuff. And there was also this great big character, sort of a spooky character with a fur coat on and a head as small as a cat, with long arms. I don’t remember the name. [Alice the Goon.] And at a certain moment I think, wasn’t it Fantagraphics that brought out a complete series of Popeye by Segar? I subscribed to this series, so I could have them all. Another one that I loved a lot was Roy Crane. Roy Crane made fantastic adventure stories of Captain Easy. It was Wash Tubbs at first, and then it changed to Captain Easy. I even once wrote a little article about his work, and he could fantastically draw water. That was a specialty of his. But it was very adventurous and moving. It was like a film. Hergé, that was influenced by film, and that’s also true of Roy Crane. He was fantastic. And Plastic Man was popular, of course. I loved the work of Plastic Man. And then I liked Rube Goldberg a lot, wth all his crazy machines. In the early years of my career, I did a series definitely inspired by the Foolish Questions of Rube Goldberg. He had a series, Foolish Questions.
PENISTON: Who would you then say was the biggest influence on your work?
SWARTE: Well, I think it started with the underground comics. First of all the underground comics in Holland. We have an artist here called Willem. He was quite important. And of course when we discovered the American underground, the Zap comics and Robert Crumb were very important. Mainly for also telling young artists that you can have whatever freedom you want. I mean, that’s an important thing to know, and from that moment on you do what you want. In the graphic field of comics I was inspired by Will Eisner’s Spirit. If I see these title pages, the constructions in his title pages, and what he does with the lettering, that was very interesting. And then another thing is, I love the older comics like Little Nemo and Lyonel Feininger. And I was interested also, because I studied industrial design, so in my study time I learned also about the Dada people in Holland and Germany, and Bauhaus architecture and design world, in which there are almost no borders. I mean, people do whatever they like. Then you have the older artists like Tatlin. They designed their own clothes, they do architecture, they do flying machines, they do painting, they do everything. I mean, it was always nice to know that if you want to do different things, that you’re not standing alone. That somebody else did it, and they survived. I loved the work of Frederick Burr Opper. Happy Hooligan. This loony, loony character with a tin can on his head. I mean, that’s already something, that you can recognize him by this little tin can. That’s fun.
PENISTON: Reminds me of Krazy Kat and Ignatz.
SWARTE: Of course, Krazy Kat is great. And I learned also about Bringing up Father that I liked a lot, which of course, in a graphic way, was an influence on me. But Krazy Kat was less traditional and more an open-minded thing. No, that was great, and this book shop that I talked to you about, Real Free Press, they also published books. And I did book covers for them. So the first thing they asked me to make was a book cover on a book about Gustave Verbeek. He was the man from the Incredible Upside-downs. So I did a book cover for that one, and then they come up with the idea to do Krazy Kat books, and they did a Bringing up Father book, and a Percy Crosby book, Skippy. I did the covers for all these books. And even for Krazy Kat, I was crazy enough that — normally you should take beautiful art by George Herriman and compose a typographical thing around it, and you have a good cover. But at that time I earned so little money that the cost for a print of a George Herriman drawing seemed to me more of a problem than to make a drawing myself in the George Herriman style. So I decided to make covers and make drawings in George Herriman’s style. And people didn’t even recognize it, that it wasn’t a real George Herriman, but it was a Joost Swarte. But I didn’t sign it George Herriman. I mean it said “George Herriman Krazy Kat in the title but the drawings were always signed “JS.” If you know it, maybe you can see it now. But at that time I couldn’t even see it myself. It was a sort of a pastiche. Let’s call it a little homage. But it was fun to do, and I learned a lot about another way of drawing.
PENISTON: Yeah, so you experiment with different styles.
SWARTE: Yes, in the beginning I really did. You do until you find the costume that fits you, in which you can express the way you want to express yourself. If you want to show architectural designs, then probably a neat line works better than the George Herriman thing. But I still admire his work. I mean, it’s great.
PENISTON: What did you like about Verbeek’s work? I’m not that familiar with him…
SWARTE: I was very much impressed by the idea that if you turn around the page you have an extra page. You have not six images, you have 12 images. You just have to turn them around.
PENISTON: It reads a different way if you turn it upside down?
SWARTE: Sure, and the story continues. And then influenced by this Gustave Verbeek, I tried to make one page myself in this manner. And I did, and I published it in Tante Leny Presenteert, in the underground magazine, but for this publication by Real Free Press I just did the cover. In that case I used an original drawing by Gustave Verbeek and I composed my lettering around it.
HANGING WITH HERGE
PENISTON: What about comics when you were a kid? Or book illustrators? Who do you remember?
SWARTE: The first things that I saw when I was a kid was probably Mickey Mouse. The old Disney stuff. And I remember when I was a child — I must’ve been about four or five years old — that I had scissors with me, and I cut all the characters from the pages and composed them on the floor. That was my first memory with comics. And then later on there was a Belgian comic called Suske en Wiske, in French it’s Bob et Bobette, and these are quite popular. [Various English language editions have given the characters different names: Bob and Bobette, Spike and Suzy and Willy and Wanda.] And later on the more expensive comics, the hardbound books by Hergé, came in, and that was great stuff. I remember as a kid I found it fantastic, because he traveled around the world and took you along with him. You came in to all sort of different cultures. That was very good.
PENISTON: So you learned a lot from reading Tintin, too.
SWARTE: Yeah, absolutely.
PENISTON: Do you have a favorite Tintin book?
SWARTE: The Blue Lotus is one of my favorites. That’s great because that was the first book that he did on another culture where he did very serious research.
PENISTON: The Chinese culture, with the opium dens and all that.
SWARTE: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. That was a very nice book. But there are more. It was at a time, in a period of the 20th century where not everybody could go to the cinema, because it’s quite expensive. Hergé wanted to make sort of a cinema for children. So he was very much influenced by cinematographic laws. Where do you place your camera? Is the hero always coming from the left? What’s the relation between foreground and background? All sorts of terms that he used come from cinema. How do you frame your pictures? I mean, he was a master at framing pictures.
PENISTON: Absolutely. The composition and the amount of detail and research that he undertook to produce those.
SWARTE: Yeah, that was great. He had great influence while I was a kid, but later also you can learn some tricks of the trade by properly reading the Tintin books. Hergé is somebody like Alfred Hitchcock is in cinema. If you want to know how to do it, just go to an Alfred Hitchcock film and he’ll teach you how to do it.
PENISTON: In your work it seems like you do a lot of research also. You pay a lot of attention to detail.
SWARTE: Yeah, I do pay some attention to detail, but mostly I design the details myself. — in the early comics that I did, the ones that were published in America in Heavy Metal, the comics that were published in my book Modern Art. At that time, I was still interested in showing not only how to draw a car, but also that people can recognize the brand of the car. But later on, I changed to designing cars myself. Because I had fun inventing something. So that made a difference. Of course, I do some research, but more so I don’t make any mistakes, but not that I make my drawings after the research. Just that I find out myself what I want to do, and then I search if I made any mistakes.
PENISTON: So you draw a lot from your imagination and your fantasies.
SWARTE: Yeah, that’s right. And then you also have your freedom to organize the backgrounds of a drawing in function of the storytelling, and not in function of recognition. That people can recognize a certain building is less important than they feel that the building is there and they understand your storytelling.
PENISTON: So it’s your composition, and you use your creative license to alter that to fit the story you’re telling, and therefore you can be more creative and invent things.
SWARTE: I feel more free this way, yeah.
PENISTON: Have you seen the biography of Hergé by Van Opstal?
SWARTE: Yes, sure I have.
PENISTON: Is that available only in Dutch?
SWARTE: It’s available in two languages, Dutch and French. The French edition was published by a Belgian publisher called LeFranc.
PENISTON: It’s really beautiful.
SWARTE: It’s incredible. And he did a lot of research without searching in the studios, where there’s a lot of work. Now that I’m adviser for the Hergé Foundation for the new museum, I know that there is even a lot more in there, in their files, than what was published in that book.
PENISTON: You mean unpublished works by Hergé?
SWARTE: Yeah. For instance, sketch concepts for calendars, and you see 12 quickly made drawings in color and that were never published. Many, many things. Many documents. It’s really involved.
PENISTON: Wow. You know Van Opstal?
SWARTE: I knew him. That is to say, I knew him from the time that I started as an underground artist. He was always interested in cartooning or the underground movement and wrote articles about it time to time. At that time, he was a friend of Evert Geradts and Aart Clerkx. I think I learned of him through Evert Geradts and I lost [track of] him about 10 years ago and then suddenly he came up with this Hergé book that he made and it was a fantastic work that he’s done. Later on, I was the initiator of the comics festival here in Haarlem —
PENISTON: The Stripdagen?
SWARTE: Yes, and at a certain moment we had a goal to have also a comic center here in Haarlem, and he [Van Opstal] wanted to be the first director of the center. So we invited him and he started working on it. But that’s where the problems came and after one year of work, trying to have this center resurrected, we said, “Probably that this is not the right combination. I mean, this won’t work, so better that we stop this effort.”
PENISTON: I see.
SWARTE: I could talk [to you about] that in detail if you want but it’s quite complicated. So from that time on, I don’t know what is happening with him and, as he worked, he was used to working very individually. He worked on this Hergé book for more than, I guess it was about 12 years without anybody knowing about it. There were only one or two friends that he involved in the project and, when it was published, it was a really big, big surprise and it took a lot of attention. I hear very, very little from him, so probably he is working on a new secret project.
PENISTON: Do you remember the first time you ever saw Tintin or works from Hergé?
SWARTE: Oh yes; that was during my childhood. That was when I was about six, I guess, or seven years old, and at that time, all the Dutch translations of the books came to Holland. It made a real big impression on me. Later, in the underground times, the style of drawing seemed not always to be the main goal of the artists, and I thought my own work lacked some of the magic that some of the artists had for me, and especially the work of Hergé. The characters seemed to come alive and now I know that it probably had something to do with his cinematographic approach to comics. Hergé really had an ambition of being a film director, and if you see what camera angles he chooses, how effectively he tells his stories, you can just judge it by his drawings and it works. But in the beginning, I thought it had to do something with the style of drawing. I tried to work in his style just to see if my own work could get the magic that I considered his work always to have, but I found out that the style of working is not the same as the magic. Storytelling needs to be the main thing, although the proper style helps. It’s like a language: If you have language, it’s a duet with the storyteller and the listener and you have certain regulations, certain words mean something, and if you use them in a proper way, you can really have your story come across. I think I learned that from Hergé; it’s not only the drawing. If you have that proper language, then comes the storytelling.
PENISTON: Did you ever meet Hergé?
SWARTE: Yes, I met him twice. I was invited in 1975 by the Rotterdam Art Foundation. They were quite progressive at the time and they invited me to participate in an exhibition on Hergé. I didn’t have too much confidence in this field because I really wasn’t what they call a “Tintin-ologist.” I loved his work and I had all his books, but I didn’t know everything. So I invited with me two other guys who were specialists and, with a team of this art foundation — they had a gallery, a huge gallery in the center of Rotterdam — we worked on this Tintin exhibition and that was a very nice experience working together. For that reason, we visited him two times in his studio: one time to discuss what we should show in this gallery and the second time to write a story about him in a magazine. So, [I visited him] as a journalist.
PENISTON: What was he like? A nice man?
SWARTE: He was a nice man. He was willing to talk about his work. It was about nine years before he died and his career was almost over. He was still working on one book, but it took years and years, and he told us about what he was working on then and what he said to the press and whatnot. But I think with us he felt more open, although he didn’t say everything; he knew what was good for his company and what was less good for his company.
PENISTON: So he was a little guarded?
SWARTE: I guess so. The first time that he was more open was in the book of Numa Sadoul. He was a young French journalist and he visited Hergé and then Hergé started to talk about his depressive periods, also about how he left his first wife for one of his assistants.
PENISTON: He had a nervous breakdown, didn’t he?
SWARTE: Absolutely. And those stories he told for the first time, as far as I know, to Numa Sadoul. And it was about at that period that we also visited him so he already lifted some files from his past and, yeah, he wasn’t too shy about it. So we had a very nice contact and he took all the time possible; if we came, for instance, at about two o’clock in the afternoon we could easily sit there for four hours talking to him, without him telling us to leave. And it was all in his studio and his main assistant, Bob De Moor, came to sit beside him and we laughed about things. I don’t know if I can find the cassettes that I took at that time, but they even started singing together, some Frank Sinatra [laughs].
PENISTON: So he was guarded, but still chatty?
SWARTE: Yeah, that’s right.
PENISTON: What was it like working on the Hergé Museum? Did you enjoy working on that?
SWARTE: Yes, I was asked by the director, Nick Rodwell, who was the second husband of the widow of Hergé. We worked together before on the huge Tintin exhibition in Haarlem during the comic festival. That was on the Blue Lotus book; there were 34 originals shown and a lot of publications from that period and sketches in the museum here in Haarlem.
PENISTON: Was that the show you were also included in?
SWARTE: No, I wasn’t included in it; I was involved in the organization. And then I got to know the director, Nick Rodwell, and some years ago he asked me, why not do something for the new Tintin museum? We need a scenario for the museum; we have 80 percent of Hergé’s work, the originals, and we have a lot of publications, etc., and his widow decided it would be good to have a Hergé museum. I formed a group with two other people: Philippe Goddin, the man who makes these huge catalogs of his works [Chronologie d’une Oeuvre] —
PENISTON: You mean a catalogue raisonné?
SWARTE: Absolutely, that’s the right word. He was part of the group and, later on, also Thierry Groensteen; he was director the comics museum in Angoulême in France. So we had a nice group; me more as a designer with a designing point of view and Thierry Groensteen with his museum background and then Philippe Goddin who knew everything about the collection of Hergé. So we came up with the report of what we thought … there was a certain total square meters given but for the rest, how to divide it and how many rooms and what to show in these different rooms, that was up to us. And we presented our report about one year or one year and a half ago, to the Fondation Hergé and they accepted our idea. The architect is a French architect, Christian Deportzamparc; he is a quite famous, Pritzker Prize-winning architect. He is designing now the museum with our scenario, and I continue to design the permanent exhibition of Hergé’s work in the museum.
PENISTON: So the museum hasn’t opened yet?
SWARTE: No, I think it will be opened in about 2009. But, as you know, with all building processes you never know exactly when they will be finished [laughs].
PENISTON: So you worked on the interior design. Did you help out with the catalogue raisonné?
SWARTE: No, I didn’t. On one end it’s nice to work on such things and it’s nice to see in the files — what’s all there about Hergé — but if I spend too much time on such research, I forget my own work. You have to make choices in life [laughs].
SWARTE: Well, the first idea was to raise this museum in Brussels, but the negotiations with the municipality of Brussels … they didn’t want to make an extra effort to make it happen. If a community gets an offer and the museum doesn’t ask for money or the exploitation of the museum and, on the other hand, will bring a lot of visitors per year to the city, then the city could do something extra; they could come up with a proper site for such a museum and, in that field, there were always negotiations. If they would have seen the value of it and treated the Hergé foundation normally in such a case, it probably would have been in Brussels. But at about the time when negotiations with Brussels didn’t go in a positive way, then suddenly there was a small village not far from Brussels — about 20 kilometers from Brussels — which is called Louvain-la-Neuve, that was a newly built city, in the early ’70s, with a university and almost everything around this new university. And they needed there a new energy to develop the city again and this cultural thing that could help them. So they were more than welcoming to get a beautiful site in this village to raise the museum.
PENISTON: So they were happy with the project and the proposal?
SWARTE: Oh yes, this village or town — I don’t know exactly how you’d describe it — they were very happy with the idea, they welcomed the Hergé museum. I think they’re wise. On the other hand, from the point of view of the Hergé museum, if people come to a museum in the city, you do more museums in one day; if you go to a museum in a village, you stay as long at the museum as you want [laughs]. So they can probably have economic profit from that.
PENISTON: And of course they’re going to spend the night and go out to restaurants and stay in hotels.
SWARTE: Well, maybe so, although 20 kilometers from Brussels isn’t that much. But at least if you go to the Hergé musuem and you take lunch there and you buy some books in the museum and often, in a bookshop in Brussels, that’s good for the exploitation of the museum. So I guess it’s an easy work there.
THOMPSON: Now the Hergé Museum is actually your second big architectural project, after the Toneelschuur Theater. How did that come about? I have to assume it was something you enjoyed.
SWARTE: It was a great experience; I mean, if you’re talking about an adventure, this is really a great one. It all started with a theater — Toneelschuur was sort of an avant-garde theater here in town. They started as squatters in an old building, and afterwards it went official and they received subsidies from the town. The old building was designed for 20,000 visitors a year, so when they began receiving 40,000 visitors a year, they thought, “Wouldn’t it be good to have another building?”
In discussion with the city council, they came to the conclusion that a new building was necessary, and so money was set aside by the council, as well as by the province of North Holland, as well as the state government. They had an amount of money reserved, but it wasn’t enough to make the building. Now, at that time, the politicians here in Haarlem had other things to do, and it wasn’t the first action on the list any more. So the Toneelschuur Theater formed a group of expert advisors, and they came with the idea, “Instead of waiting until the city council comes up with the extra money, why not take the lead in this play, and we start making the building? We don’t have any money to hire an architect to do a sketch version of a new building, but we have a program for the new building, we know what side it would be on, and we have worked for years with an artist who knows our work very, very well, and who is extremely interested in architecture.” So that’s why they asked me. I advised them, in this process, to do it in steps, and at each step, I had a back door to sneak out. [Thompson laughs.] But in fact, after the first night, I knew I would never walk away from this.
So, I thought of the most important thing: How can you bring a truck with a theater set into the smallest area of an old medieval town? That was the first thing: If I could find a solution for that, that rest would be peanuts. I found a solution the first day, the first evening, and then I didn’t trust myself, so I thought of different solutions, but the first one was the best, and after one week, I phoned and said, “I need a meeting.” So I just continued with the work.
The first year, I developed the new building, I made floor plans for it, I made sketches, I made four silkscreens that would present the building. I proposed to make a portfolio that would help them press the city council into accepting the plan; I thought that would be a fantastic way to present the project, and it could also help later to ask certain industries for money to get it financed. If you have a good presentation, it helps. After I did the floor plans, it was calculated, and the building price seemed to be very reasonable, so I made together with the theater an audio-visual presentation in the theater for the politicians in town, then we waited for one year.
A journalist came to me and said, “What did I hear? Did you, a comic artist, design the new theater?”
And I said, “Yes, I did. But I ask you one thing, don’t publish.” I know you can never ask journalists to not publish such a scoop, so I said, “I want to do something in return. Come to me two weeks before we do the presentation, I’ll tell you all about it, and you have that scoop as well.” And she accepted, and the funny thing is that, after the presentation in the theater, the newspaper with the color image on the first page was there to be picked up by the politicians as a souvenir of this afternoon, and that had a great impact, so that helped. It was embraced by the city council. Then came the problem: How to make a real building?
And for that reason, I had a contract with the architects from Mecanoo, a very well-known group of young architects. They found it interesting to work with someone who was, let’s say, the organizer and the aesthetic master of the project. But as they work with quite a big studio, they found it interesting for the young architects who work there to show that each project has different ways of development. I was very happy that they accepted.
And I must say they changed some major things. I had this small theater hall, because there were two theater halls, two cinemas, etc., and the smaller of the theater halls was, in my first drawing, north-south, and they turned it 90° so there was more room in the foyer. I mean, that’s a simple thing, but it was a very wise decision. And they also had as many rooms as possible on the same level, so you don’t have to install too many elevators, all such practical things. It was very good.
THOMPSON: How long did the entire process take, from the first sketches to the actual opening —
SWARTE: Well, it was 1995 when I started, and 2003 when we had the opening. So it was eight years.
THOMPSON: How did it feel to finally actually step into basically one of your own drawings?
SWARTE: It’s around the corner from my studio, so I had the opportunity, especially in the last three months, to be on the site every day. So I followed it very closely, and I could have some minor changes, at the end. But yeah, it’s quite bizarre. When you develop a building, you live in a fantasy land, and when it becomes concrete, it’s something else. When I first saw the rooms I thought, “It looks quite small.” But when it was all finished, it came back to what I imagined.
PENISTON: Tell me a little more about Stripdagen.
SWARTE: Stripdagen was an idea that came to me I think in 1988. There always was a comic festival in Holland organized by a society of comic lovers. It was a welcoming festival on one hand; on the other hand they didn’t have the money and the proper organization to make good exhibitions, because you needed some professionalism around it, as insurance is involved — and the proper publicity. I think I was quite influenced by what I saw in France in the Angoulême festival, that a smaller town is always better for a festival. I visited also comic festivals in Paris, for instance, but the minor thing of such a comic [festival] in a big city is that after the doors of the festival are closed everybody makes his own way in town. And especially these informal meetings around the festival, around the book fair, are what makes it worth going to because there you can easily get in contact with artists or publishers.
I thought that in the Netherlands, if a festival would be organized somewhere, it should be in a provincial town, like Haarlem. I had my experience in Haarlem. They dedicated a major exhibition to my works in the Frans Hals Museum — not only mine but also other illustrators, and I thought they would probably be interested. And if they are interested in presenting a show with comic works during such a festival, probably another museum in town will follow — that’s what I started with. I started by asking this Frans Hals Museum and they were interested. I visited the Tylers museum and they joined, and what I said to them was that the organization would coordinate the festival and make publicity around the program, but the museums themselves should organize the show with their own money, like they normally do. The organization didn’t have the money to organize such an exhibition, but the advantage to such a museum is that they get a lot of new visitors inside their museum that normally wouldn’t have visited a museum. So they accepted this idea and, before I knew it, almost all cultural institutions in town got interested in the idea. At the first festival we had about 20 exhibitions in galleries and concert halls and we had a play in a theater and we had also film in the program and there were a lot of comic artists with exhibitions in a museum. So that made it more a cultural festival than a commercial festival.
PENISTON: Does that happen every two years?
PENISTON: And it’s going to happen again this June?
SWARTE: That’s right, the first weekend of June.
PENISTON: How long does it last?
SWARTE: For the public, two days. But that doesn’t mean that the exhibitions last only for two days because if a museum or a gallery starts an exhibition, mostly they will have this exhibition for one month. The initial idea was often that the openings of the varieties of exhibitions were the week before the public festival so that the comments in the newspapers on these exhibitions were also publicity for the festival.
PENISTON: Who are the artists that will be featured this year in the festival?
SWARTE: Well, I’m not in the organization any more but what I heard is that there is a group of artists from Finland that will be focused on.
PENISTON: So artists and publishers come from all over Europe to participate?
SWARTE: Yes. In the past, there was also a year when it was focused on artists from Brazil and another time from the United States; we had invited here Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes and Robert Crumb, and often Robert Crumb played with his musical band here, he played one or two times with the Cheap Suit Serenaders and also with this French group, Les Primitifs Du Futur.
PENISTON: Does he play at all the fairs, like Angoulême?
SWARTE: No. In Angoulême he played once, I guess, and that was probably when he was president of the festival. But I preferred to call him the emperor of the festival [laughs].
PENISTON: Is he a bit of a recluse or do you know him well?
SWARTE: We meet from time to time. When he was in Haarlem for the festival, we ate together; here in my house, we organize a breakfast for fellow artists. So the Sunday morning breakfast is with artists here in the house and Robert and Aline were there.
PENISTON: Because you work pretty closely with him on his record covers and Odds and Ends books?
SWARTE: Yeah, that’s right. In ’92, I guess it was not only the first festival but also the start of the comics publishing house Oog & Blik, which I started together with a friend of mine who was a distributor in imported comics. This man, Hansje Joustra, has become a very good friend of Robert and visits him from time to time in France and Robert has gotten interested in publishing a special project with us. I think we started with his little box with collecting cards —
PENISTON: Yes, trading cards.
SWARTE: Yeah, trading cards on musicians. And then at about that time too we made a record-cover collection book.
JOOST SWARTE, PUBLISHER
THOMPSON: Let’s talk about Oog & Blik a little. At the time Hansje was running a store?
SWARTE: No, not at that point. He had the idea to start a store, and at the moment that he mentioned it to me, we knew each other already from the music business. He had a record company called Torso, independent music. I’d drawn covers and some labels and things for him. He had the idea to start a comics store. And I said, “Well, in 1984, Futurpolis is going to publish a collection of my stories, Swarte Hors Série, and it would be nice if the book could be imported in Holland, too. Would it be something for you, as a future comics-store owner, to import the book?”
So he went with me to Paris, and then he became the importer of the Futuropolis books in Holland. And after the success of this company called Het Raadsel, which means “The Riddle,” he said, “Well, forget about the comic store, distribution is my task,” and he also began publishing books under the name of Het Raadsel.
And, at a certain time, he was advised to separate the publishing business from the distribution business. That was the time to start a new company, and that became Oog & Blik, and it was an initiative from Hansje and from me. It’s, for a small country, a very interesting publishing company.
THOMPSON: Of course, it’s a great publisher. Did you co-finance it?
SWARTE: Well, we decided not to take any income from the company in the first year. But it was wise, because then it could become an independent publisher, and it was possible to publish a lot of beautiful books. After the problems with Het Raadsel, they went bankrupt about two years ago. Fortunately, the advice at that time given to separate into two companies was very wise advice, so Oog & Blik is strong and continuing to make publications.
THOMPSON: Yes. In fact, next year, they’re going to be publishing your complete works.
SWARTE: Yep, that’s right.
THOMPSON: Is that their biggest book project? That’s a pretty sizable thing.
SWARTE: Yes. But I guess, well, you never know in advance how much time it’s going to take. It’s going to be as a comic book, quite a big book. But this book in France, Hors Série, was quite a big book as well. And even the book I composed myself as a catalog for the exhibition in Germany, this book Leporello — that’s the official name for an accordion-folded brochure — was quite large.
THOMPSON: So looking over all of your work that’s being collected into this collection, does anything strike you about it? What’s your response to excavating your past from the ’70s and ’80s? Have you looked at that material often, recently?
SWARTE: Well, yes, of course, for this new collection, I re-read my old comics, and I thought, “Well, there’s a lot of weird personages walking around here in these comics.” [Thompson laughs.]
If you consider an artist as somebody who’s giving the reader something which [the reader] then finishes off in his head, then I think that in the beginning, the artist in me was more somebody who wanted to show people these crazy things. Now I think I show less. I want people — and maybe they do, well, I guess they do — to finish the drawings in their head, so you give them enough information to finish the drawing. In that way, they get connected with the drawing.
PENISTON: Are you still working on publishing books with Oog & Blik?
SWARTE: Well, yes, my own books. But I’m trying to step out of the company because it’s sort of a responsibility and my field that I work in has brought them so much that I need time to spend on my own work. So I will be doing less things, like comic festivals, and working on books. But I wouldn’t leave that field of bookmaking — probably from time to time I will work on projects — but not in the way that I did for this publishing company, Oog & Blik. Not so much any more, I guess.