A John’s Gospel: The Chester Brown Interview

Comics Corner

ROGERS: Since you're somebody who has also adapted scripture, I was wondering what you thought of Crumb’s Genesis.

BROWN: Well, now Crumb has written that very nice thing that we put in Paying for It, I’m not allowed to say anything. [laughs] It’s a beautiful book—Crumb is such an amazing draughtsman. It’s gorgeous to look at. It’s worth buying just for the visuals alone. His approach of including every word, I think that works against how comics work. He’s taking all this prose and putting it into comics. Comics can’t take that much prose. And, obviously, my approach was different. I remember Steve Gerber in one of his interviews in The Comics Journal, said that no word balloon should have more than twenty words in it, and at the time that struck me as being true. You don’t want to overwhelm your panel with words. It’s tipping things too much over into prose. It slows down the reading experience. The reading experience of comics should be relatively quick. You don’t want someone spending too much time on a page. And I think that’s what happens with the Crumb book: you’re spending too much time on each page.

ROGERS: So you didn’t see him trying to solve the same kind of problems that you had when you were adapting?

BROWN: Well, I saw the problem was there—it was a different approach. It’s not the way I would have done it. It’s still a beautiful book.

ROGERS: Well, I guess you’ve even done your own Genesis, too, right? In Underwater.

BROWN: Oh, that’s right, yeah. [laughs] Not quite the faithful adaptation that Crumb was going for.

ROGERS: You've mentioned Steve Gerber a couple times in the interview, and I’m wondering what Gerber's appeal is.

BROWN: Well, for someone who read mostly superhero comics in the ‘70s, Gerber was a very interesting figure. His two main series were Man-Thing and Howard the Duck, neither of which were typical superhero-type books. He was clearly very intelligent and his books had a different feel. Have you read any of that stuff?

ROGERS: I’ve read Omega and a bunch of Defenders and Howard the Duck when I was a kid, but Omega’s the one that I’ve revisited most recently.

BROWN: Yeah, even Omega, even though it was a superhero book, it was different than your typical superhero comic at the time. So, he definitely influenced my thinking. When I had an interest in doing superheroes, or doing more genre-oriented material, he would’ve been someone I was looking to as a model for doing things for a big company like that but still making it distinctive and your own. Certainly he was one of the writers I loved the best from that period, along with Steve Englehart.

ROGERS: Have you gone back and revisited any of the comics that you were reading in your formative years?

BROWN: Sure, occasionally. I attempted to reread [Jack] Kirby’s Kamandi not too long ago. I was intending to read through the whole series, and I couldn’t make it more than a couple issues. As far as the other guys, I would’ve read the Gerber stuff or the Steve Englehart stuff as they were coming out. I probably have reread some of that stuff, but only single issues here or there, and I haven’t reread any of it for quite a few years now. So I’m not sure how it would hit me now.

ROGERS: When you were first noticing these individualistic characteristics that would leak into mainstream comics with, say, Gerber or Englehart, were you noticing it, first of all, in terms of writers?

BROWN: Oh, definitely the artists too. I mean, if we want to talk Marvel and DC artists I loved at the period [laughter]: Mike Ploog, who definitely influenced me, Marshall Rogers, [William] Kaluta of course, Bernie Wrightson

ROGERS: So these were guys who would catch your attention because they were different from the Marvel house style or the Neal Adams style of the time?

BROWN: Each of them had a very distinct style, although—like, Mike Ploog imitated [Will] Eisner, but I didn’t realize that when I was reading Mike Ploog. If I remember correctly, I’ve read an interview with Ploog where he said he actually worked with Eisner, for at least a short period of time, so you can see where that influence comes from. Another name I forgot was Paul Gulacy. I really loved his run on Master of Kung-Fu. But, of course, I didn’t realize at the time that he was aping Jim Steranko. When I later came across [Jim] Steranko I was like, “Oh, okay, this is where Gulacy got his style from.” But they seemed very unusual to my eyes at the time. When I first would have been reading Marvel comics, I wouldn’t have known who Eisner or Steranko were. Of course Steranko got his style from refining Kirby in a way. But each step gets further away from the source and looks distinctive and weird in its own way.

ROGERS: I was thinking about that with the undergrounds lately. I was wondering about Jack Jackson, if you had been reading his work for a long time.

BROWN: Oh, definitely, yeah. I picked up his book about Quanah Parker, Comanche Moon, when it first came out. Pretty sure I’ve bought all of his books since then, although I’ve never been able to find a copy of his book about the Alamo. I’ve looked for it, and asked Peter [Birkemoe] at the Beguiling to special order me a copy. I’m sure I’ll find it at some point, somewhere. But I was definitely very influenced by him and was looking at his way of doing things when I was working on the Riel book. He's definitely someone people should still be reading. I’m not sure how in print his stuff is now.

ROGERS: When we were talking about Gray earlier you were mentioning that his appeal or influence came from being so different from the superhero comics you were used to reading, where it’s filled with emotion and close-ups and angst and whatever else. But we were also talking about Ditko—do you find Ditko emotional? Or is there something about Ditko’s superhero comics that differentiate them from other superhero comics?

BROWN: Well [laughs] yeah, they’re a lot different than other superhero comics. But, I mean, when you mention emotion and Ditko, I immediately think of Mr. A, who wears that blank mask that stays the same all the time. Like, he even has a few scenes where Mr. A laughs but the face stays the same. [laughs] You don’t see any kind of smile on the face or anything. There’s Spider-Man too, of course, and there’s absolutely no emotion on that face either. Or very little. Maybe there’s some variation in the eyes. But, yeah, it’s kind of a curious thing. At least two of his significant heroes don’t show emotion on their face.

ROGERS: Well, there’s the Question too, right?

BROWN: That’s right. The Question. [laughs] If we look there probably would be even more of his heroes that don’t show emotion.

ROGERS: Do you read any manga? It seems like something that’s diametrically opposed to your style in a lot of cases. I’m curious if you’re engaging with that at all.

BROWN: Not much. When Frank Miller was talking about Lone Wolf and Cub back in like the mid-'80s, I picked up a bunch of those untranslated in their Japanese editions, and really enjoyed them even though I couldn’t read them. I've subsequently picked up the complete English translation. And I enjoyed those. In a way, they’re more fun when you’re just imagining what’s being said [Rogers laughs]. But that stuff’s really gorgeous. I really enjoyed [Osamu] Tezuka’s Buddha series. What else? Yeah, I haven’t read a lot of manga stuff.

ROGERS: What about the more adult-oriented work that’s being published lately, like [Yoshihiro] Tatsumi?

BROWN: Oh, yeah, the Tatsumi books. Well when Catalan put out Good-Bye by Tatsumi in the ‘80s I picked that up and responded to it immediately. I was like, “I really wish there was more work by that guy out.” So I was delighted when Drawn and Quarterly started reprinting it a couple years ago. I really enjoyed those. I thought those were great. And if we’re talking about manga-influenced people: Bryan Lee O’Malley. Particularly with the first Scott Pilgrim book, he really took the manga style and made it his own. And they look so great. I don’t know whether you would consider him manga or not, but he’s certainly a cartoonist who's able to do interesting stuff with that look.

ROGERS: This is kind of a typical question, but who should people be paying attention to now in terms of cartoonists? [Brown laughs] Or who are you paying attention to? Who do you think isn’t getting read enough?

BROWN: Well, it’s probably because I’m involved with these Doug Wright Awards, and it’s also because I’m friends with these guys, but this clutch, this gang of Toronto cartoonists: Jason Kieffer, Nick Maandag, and Ethan Rilly. All three of them are young guys who are doing really interesting work. With Jason, he’s such a quirky person, and you really get a sense of his quirky personality. He’s such a character. Nick too, actually. Nick’s got that very dry humour and a very deadpan way of looking at the world. It’s kind of a weird mixture of irony and sincerity in Nick’s work. And again, very distinctive art styles with both those guys.

ROGERS: You definitely wouldn’t mistake them for anybody else.

BROWN: No. Nick—actually a lot like Fletcher Hanks—has a very stiff look to his work, whereas Jason's cartooniness has more of a flow to it. His work isn’t stiff in the same way. But I love both of those guys. Although I guess none of them has done anything really substantial yet. I mean, Nick is the closest to having a really big book with Streakers, which I guess is like sixty pages. But they all look like they’re going to be doing really interesting work in the future.

ROGERS: Yeah, I think Streakers could be a big thing for him. It seems like people who enjoy Michael Kupperman or offbeat humour like that would really cotton to that book. It’s a really funny book.

BROWN: You’re right. Actually, speaking of young cartoonists and funny stuff, Kate Beaton, who I know is signed with Drawn & Quarterly now. I love her stuff. That’s someone who, at least I get the impression, that she doesn’t have enough attention yet. She’s self-published a book, but hopefully with Drawn & Quarterly publishing her she’ll get more attention.

ROGERS: I think she’s got a gigantic amount of attention on the internet and gets published in the National Post and things like that, but yeah her book is going to be great.

BROWN: She’s just so funny. I probably have laughed out loud several times while reading her, but even with the ones where you don’t laugh out loud, it’s just her way of expressing things. I don’t know what it is that she does, but it just seems really amusing.

ROGERS: Yeah, it’s hard to pick it apart, but the elegance of her drawing style fits in with her humor remarkably well too, somehow.

BROWN: I’m looking forward to seeing where she goes with it, because at this point the work that I’ve seen by her is just those single one-pagers. I’m wondering, is she going to continue with that? And that’s fine if she does, because she does those really well. Or is she going to go into more long-form stuff? It’ll be really interesting. Or is she going to give up on cartooning altogether, the way Julie [Doucet] did? We’ll see.

ROGERS: I’m really looking forward to seeing something new by Ethan Rilly too. I haven’t seen anything since Pope Hats.

BROWN: I think he had twenty or thirty pages drawn of a new project. Was it called Marta? Or Marla? It was a minicomic that he put out last year, and he had a few panels from the longer thing that he was working on, and they looked gorgeous. Unfortunately he decided he didn’t like it, so he abandoned it. I’ve done the same thing. So cartoonists will do that. But, yeah, otherwise, I guess it’s just the usual names: Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, and Seth. Joe Matt, Adrian Tomine. People everyone knows. Oh, I know who I should have mentioned: Pascal Girard. I loved Bigfoot. I’m guessing that it hasn’t sold the way I think it should’ve. But everyone should check that out. He looks like he’s going to be a really interesting cartoonist.

ROGERS: What is it about his comics that appeals to you?

BROWN: Well, actually, there’s quite a bit of similarity between Pascal’s stuff and Ethan [Rilly]’s stuff: both centred around the lives of young people, and they both have a very naturalistic feel to them, a casual feel. Ethan’s drawing in a more realistic style and Pascal’s slightly more stylized, but still not overly dramatic. I like that distanced feel that you have in the artwork—there isn’t what you’d call a melodramatic feel. So I like that about them. It’s been maybe a couple months since I read Bigfoot, so I can’t remember the details that well, but I just really, really enjoyed the book.

ROGERS: Right. Growing up in an outlying area in Quebec—I guess there’s a lot to respond to there for you, maybe?

BROWN: He really captures that milieu really well. As does Ethan for his downtown [Toronto] neighbourhood, you know. I particularly notice it in Ethan’s work, because I know—like, he will draw a specific Kentucky Fried Chicken on a specific corner. [Rogers laughs.] I’m like, “I know that Kentucky Fried Chicken.” Or, I guess you’d call it KFC now. But I know the locations. But also with Pascal’s work, even though I don’t know his neighborhoods, or if he’s drawing specific places, you get a feel for where the book is set.

ROGERS: Are you reading work by young American cartoonists, or are you exposed to it at all?

BROWN: If it’s recommended to me. Seth keeps up with the cartooning scene way more than I do, and he is actively reading work by younger American cartoonists. So if he tells me to read something by so-and-so, I usually will. But I can’t think of anyone off the top of my head. Maybe it’s just because I know all these Canadian cartoonists that I’m really into their work.

ROGERS: We were talking earlier about Sammy Harkham. What did you think of Crickets 3?

BROWN: Oh, I loved it. It was amazing. He’s so talented. It looks like this new graphic novel’s going to be great. Love his work.

ROGERS: What is it about his work that appeals to you?

BROWN: Gorgeous, very loose, cartoony drawing style. He started out less realistic and he’s becoming more and more able to draw, or he’s trying to draw more realistically, and doing a very good job of it, so his work is becoming more grounded in reality. But just that loose style, it’s really beautiful. But the way he tells stories, too. That story, in Drawn & Quarterly Showcase, about a teenage girl, just hanging around the house...

ROGERS: “Somersaulting.”

BROWN: There was almost nothing to the story, but I found it really involving anyway. There wasn’t any kind of heavy plot going, but somehow his work is really readable. I’m not sure that I can pick it apart. It reads really well, even though so far he hasn’t done a longer work with a really drawn-out, evolving plot or anything. Maybe that’s what he’s going to be doing with the graphic novel he’s working on now.