“I Mean, Why Did I Like That?”: The Tim Hensley Interview (Part Two)

So after the strip about politics, and history with Paul Revere, you did "Smooth Jazz", and then you did the noir one.

"Love Punishes the Guilty!" [Comics Journal Special Edition Winter 2004] Yeah, that one came out good. That one I didn’t have a chance to color and then I eventually colored it and put it on my blog. I always wished I could have had it published somewhere in color ‘cause I liked it in color better.

The color version of a "Love Punishes the Guilty!" page.
The color version of a "Love Punishes the Guilty!" page.

And you didn’t really do anything in color until Wally Gropius. Is that the next comic you did, or was there something else?

Before MOME started, I got an email from Gary Groth saying you should do a longer story and we’re doing this MOME thing, and I said okay I can do that. The idea was that they were gonna have the same cartoonist in every issue and I said I can do that, but I need time to prepare what I’m going to do. So I was saying, oh, I’ll start in issue 5. So I was working right up until issue 5 came out. I had two pages in MOME 2, ‘cause I was like, well, maybe I can do these one-pagers while I’m working on the later comics and do both at the same time, but it didn’t work out that way. I was writing the story first while those issues were coming out, going to the library after work in captioning and writing. I look back on it and I definitely miss MOME, because it was such a good situation to have some place to publish in a fairly regular way, and so rare to find an editor who will just say here’s the deadline, turn something in, rather than here’s the theme or we need you to do something specific to this anthology that we’re doing. It’s not a situation I’m finding with MOME gone [laughs]. The thing that’s good is that working on MOME got me to develop a routine. So I am working at about the same pace I was before, it’s just not really being published [laughs] so much.

So I think you've said before that you wrote pretty much the bulk of the plot for Wally Gropius before you started publishing the first stories?

Yeah, I wrote the story first and then I lettered the whole story and then I just taped the pages down and filled in the boxes. So I did all the panel borders first and then I did all the headline lettering and then I did all the balloon lettering for the entire story. Then the only things that were added, when I had to make it a book, I was like, oh, darn, I still don’t even have the 64 pages that I need to… I added a few pages and those were new, but everything else was done in advance. ‘Cause like I was saying, when I was working full time it really helped me. I don’t know how people could publish a story and still be trying to figure out what it’s going to be as it’s being published. The pressure of that seems really heavy to me, you know, because you could be affected negatively by people’s response to it, and I think it’s also better if you know in advance what is happening because, even in a subconscious way, it comes out in what you’re drawing that you already know how the story is gonna go. It’s kind of like, when you’re drawing…

It seems like some artists might say the problem with having it all, not just planned out, but written out and lettered years in advance, is that you would become bored then as you finish it up.

Well, I don’t know if "bored" is exactly the right word; it’s a struggle. I mean, I guess there’s this idea like it’s not fresh or something, but again I think that’s not necessarily a bad thing -- to sometimes be in a situation where you’re working on something that’s not an easy thing to do [laughs]. Different things happen, because even if you have everything planned out, you can still end up working on a page that you lettered a couple years ago and ... I guess the struggle is, you can still end up being engaged with it in a different way. Like sometimes you have jokes that are bad and you try to fix them through what the drawing is because you’re like, what was I thinking at that time? I don’t know, I mean, as I get older, I think also because my sister passed away, I wonder how much time I have left, and working in this way, whether it’s good or bad-- because it’s definitely something you don’t see an immediate result for and you spend years on it-- in a way it’s painful, but there’s also something kind of painless about it because of the very fact that it’s all sort of bland. You’re just showing up and trying to make something happen, [laughs] you know, rather than try to show up and starting from scratch over and over again. That can be a good thing when you’re also working full time.

Are you working on a longer project right now?

Yeah, I mean after I finished Wally Gropius I didn’t really publish anything because I was writing another book [laughs], and then I finished writing it and thumbnailing it and now I’m drawing it. And it’s [laughs] just another book, but it’ll be done someday if I’m lucky [Hodler laughs]. So I’m just working on it.

This is separate from the Hitchcock strips…

No, that’s part of it. But I mean, I did a bunch of things, some things are adaptations and I tried to write something original that kind of ties in that’s sort of different from that. I have some more pages of Hitchcock strips to draw and then that part of it will be done and then there’s another part [laughs] and then… I don’t know, I just have a notebook. After I do this part, then I’ll do the thing where I letter [laughs] the next part and start taking the pages down. I also moved and I actually now have an art studio for the first time ever, so in a way, the work has been going better than it has been. Because before my drawing table was right next to my wife’s bed and I didn’t want to wake her up [laughter] a lot of times.

An unpublished page from Hensley's new book project.
An unpublished page from Hensley's new book project.

Your drawing style seems to have changed a lot from Ticket Stub and Duplex Planet to Wally Gropius. Was there anything behind that besides the obvious: I want to draw like a teenage comic book?

Well, I mean, I taught myself to draw a lot of the things that I did from books, how-to-draw-comics books that I found in the library, so I was a lot of the time developing this style of drawing that was based around using these tools that are from these books from the fifties, that say, you know, you draw on Strathmore Bristol and you use a Windsor Newton #2 brush. When I was doing Ticket Stub, I just had a pen and a piece of paper, and Wally Gropius is more ... not a natural way that I create work; it’s not a quick way to do it. One morning I’m maybe working on some detail, trying to draw one figure in one panel, and the next day I’m drawing another figure in the same panel, so it’s kind of similar to what I was talking about in the captioning, it’s a half an hour for eight hours. In terms of the style and how it changed: yeah, I definitely did decide to draw it in the style of an older teenage comic and I had looked at some of the Peanuts Sunday things and how the color worked and how everything’s dropped out, and then just the color fills everything, rather than all the details of the backgrounds. I was definitely trying to do that, but I found as I was coloring it or working on it that a lot of times it was difficult to do that, and figure out where you are. I was finding that I was using similar colors if I was in a similar place. If I was in The Dropouts’ practice room it had to be a certain color, a repeating color for it to be clear where it was happening. [Laughs] I think I kind lost track of what I was answering there [Hodler laughs]. How did I develop that style? I don’t know. I mean, trial and error, I guess [laughs].

Well, I guess I was just wondering because you’ve said in other interviews that the writing comes easier to you than the drawing, and because your style has changed so much, I didn’t know if there were other things going on with your relationship to drawing that might not be obvious.

I think, you know, over a long period of time I just… Yeah, I don’t know.

Just practice.

Yeah, it takes years to learn how to use a brush. At least for me. I still just have no… It’s hard to use it, you know? I wish I was more spontaneous and freer with it, but it’s so difficult to make a good line. All of that stuff is about trying to make a good line and things I picked over the years, like how to use a ruler with a dip pen. [Laughs.] I didn’t know how to do that. And then how to use a ellipses template made the artwork a lot tighter than it would have been if I didn’t know how to do that, because you get really straight lines and really sort of mechanical curve lines that make the artwork a little bit more like processed-looking [laughs] or something more artificial or more machine-like. Lately for fun, I’ve been doing these drawings on the iPad and you have no control over that stuff at all, it’s just like you try to do something and it’s like you’re signing your name at the supermarket or something. I think it’s fun because there’s just no way to make it look right. [Hodler laughs.] But when I go back to do normal inking, instead of somebody being on the on-deck circle and having two bats, it’s like swinging a bat made of gelatin and then having a bat [laughs].

You’re making your comics on tablet now?

No, I’m doing my comics with ink and paper. After I get home from work I do… I got one of these tablets, the iPad Mini thing, and I wondered, “What am I supposed to do with this thing?” [Hodler laughs] So I got one of those sketching apps and I try to do art on it. The size of it looks like a New Yorker cartoon, so I’ll do these gag panel cartoons but I’m just goofing off. I don’t intend to publish it or do anything with it.

Have you ever tried to get gags into the New Yorker or any other magazine like that?

No, I never have. I always read that you have to submit like eight or something? I have no idea how that works at all. I mean, I always feel like my subject matter or natural intuition is just not ... I’d rather just do something without the weight of some constituency, you know, like situations where like they have this huge audience and they just want you to do something. I actually went to see Robert Mankoff, the cartoon editor, do some kind of talk at the Skirball museum here in the city. They had an exhibit of New Yorker cartoons, but they didn’t have any originals so I was really disappointed. And he had a talk there. I guess he does some sort of scientific university studies about punch lines or something [Hodler laughs]. That contest on the back page, that sort of makes me mad. No one would have a poetry contest where they send in the last line of a poem.

[Laughs] That’s a good idea.

If you could improve those, yeah, they should just switch it around or something. You know, have Roger Ebert write the last line of, what’s his name, W.S. Merwin’s latest poem or something [Hodler laughs].

I don’t know that much about it, but it seems like the way they go about dealing with cartoonists now is really strange, where they make them submit 10 cartoons at once and take none of them, and then keep going back over and over and over again.

During that talk, he made it sound like it was a scientific thing, that he wanted an equal spread, you know, humor where nothing would be too dark or too light—or something, I don’t know. It seemed like he couldn’t come up with a system for it, but he made a thing to try to convince people that it was just as highbrow as whatever else was in The New Yorker [Hodler laughs]. I definitely read the comics in The New Yorker and some of them I like more than others, I guess. Roz Chast was at the Brooklyn Comics festival and I was excited about that. I’ve always liked her stuff.

Yeah, she’s very funny. There are a lot of funny cartoonists in the magazine, but it does seem sometimes like a lot of it is kind of pressed flat and all the juices are gone. So, are you the kind of cartoonist who brings a sketchbook wherever you go? Are you drawing a lot, or is it only for your comics?

No, I’m really neurotic, I mean, that’s why the Ticket Stub drawings are just in that booth. When cartoonists draw other people while they’re on the subway or something, I would never do that because I’m afraid someone would come up and say, hey, you’re drawing me [Hodler laughs]. So I’d rather draw a picture of somebody in a magazine or off of a TV monitor because I don’t want to have the danger of that happening. Any drawings or sketches are just problem-solving for panels now. For example, I’m working on this thing at the moment where a character is having a hernia-- not having a hernia, they have a hernia and they are reacting to the pain of having a hernia [Hodler laughs]— so that definitely could be a funny drawing, but that’s something you might need to sketch out in advance to convey that. It’s not as easy as it sounds [laughs].

Another Ticket Stub page.
Another Ticket Stub page.

So with Ticket Stub, it sounds like the image came first, as opposed to your other comics. Is that right, it was the image and then you would write the words after the fact, or did it come simultaneously?

Well, everything that you do in captioning has a time code because you need something that tells the captions when they’re supposed to appear, what time, you know, 43 minutes is an hour show. So as I’d be working on something, I’d be like, I like that frame, I’d like to draw that, and that would be like, oh, that’s 01:15:47:13. So I’d write that down and at the end of the day I’d cue that up and then draw that. And then a lot of the times how the drawing would go would determine how much space I would have to write something or what the layout of the page would be, because there wasn’t any erasing obviously. It was drawing it and then, well, I have this much space. I would free associate based on what I felt like writing to fill that space. I guess it’s like typesetting or something.

In the Mome interview, you end by talking about not feeling in sync with some modern cartoonists who work in a sort of image-first way, and so it seems interesting that Ticket Stub kind of is image-first in a way, at least in the creative process.

Yeah, well, I mean, cartoonists will always post like, oh, I drew this picture, I did this sketch, or this is a panel from what I’m doing, but you don’t ever see a cartoonist saying, oh, I wrote this funny line of [Hodler laughs] dialogue. People don’t look at it that way. But I like the fact that Ticket Stub is such a different book than the other one. I definitely thought, like, well, you know Wally Gropius is this big shiny book and it’s got loud colors, so this one is small and it’s got rough paper and it’s got muted color that’s really dull [laughs]. I also felt like that, I think, because when I was making recordings I was doing the thing where I had a five-piece band and then I had a nine-piece band. It was nice to have my second book be what should have been my first book [laughter] and kind of regress.

Earlier you said that you didn’t like having around anthologies that you have stories in, but you liked having Ticket Stub and Wally Gropius. Are those two the things you’re most proud of?

Yeah, I guess so. But really it’s just those are the two books that I have done. I really haven’t done any other books yet. Ticket Stub definitely wouldn’t have happened without Rina Ayuyang. I mean, I had the excerpt that was in The Comics Journal 301 and she sent me an e-mail saying, [laughs] I like this. I didn’t have any response from anyone other than her, but she said, you know, someone should publish this and if not, I’ll do it, and she did. And that was how come that book happened; it was really just her. She was great.

I guess I should just ask her, but was that the impetus for Yam Books? Or was she already going to start it?

I don’t know how serious her plans were about publishing something. It was more like, I think she almost said it in passing, like I’d be willing to publish this, and I said okay, and I’m not sure she was expecting that. You’d have to ask her. The other thing that happened is when we moved I found that I had all of the original Xeroxes from when I did the thing, so it was really easy to put together and it became just a fun project to work on. I felt really lucky to be published by her. It just worked out well and I had fun traveling to New York and San Francisco to do those conventions with her and she was a great person. I like that she’s going to be doing other stuff. I think it was also, I was definitely influenced… A lot of times I’d go to San Diego when Dylan Williams would have the Sparkplug table there and I would catch up on mini-comics, and it’s sort of a different philosophy, those kind of books, they aren’t all bells and whistles, they have actual content you have to read [laughs].

With Ticket Stub, the obvious neat thing about the book is the notches physically cut into the bottom that make it look like a ticket. Was it difficult to find a printer that would do that?

That was sort of the deal-breaker for me, when I said like, okay, I’d be happy to have you publish it, but one thing it’s got to have is this die cut in it [Hodler laughs]. And she said okay. I don’t think she had a huge budget to make a super fancy foil-stamped book, but she found a place that would do it. It was actually not as easy as I thought it would be. The other thing was the original zines themselves were slightly different sizes, so adding this footer kind of thing at the bottom ended up sort of evening everything out and making it look more unified. It also was just kind of funny [laughs].