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

I wanted to ask you about something I heard you say in another interview, which was that when you first started doing comics, you were against narrative and character. I was wondering what was your reasoning then, and what changed?

When I was in college I was interested in experimental writing and I think when I tried to come up with ideas … A lot of times I think people come up with a character and then they can plug the character into a million stories. I think for me it was about the language itself and it was also like I was sort of disconnected from my emotions at that time, so that I couldn’t really imagine… There is something that can be dissatisfying, especially living in Hollywood, where all you ever hear about is a character’s journey or something like that. Sometimes that can [make you] be kind of like, oh, I don’t wanna do that [Laughter]. But I think what changed is … [Hensley laughs] I don’t know, you could either argue it as being I was inexperienced, or that I’ve become more complacent as I’ve gotten older or I’ve gotten lazier and not as experimental or something. I think it could work either way. Like with Ticket Stub you were saying that it’s unclear when you read it. Obviously there’s no idea of a story or a character and it’s not that kind of thing, it’s just a journal of reactions to movies or something, but I could have made that differently. I got a zine at the zine fest, I think it was called I Love Bad Movies and it was just different people saying, oh, I saw this movie and here’s why it was terrible or whatever, so I wasn’t doing something like that.

Well, one of the most fun and impressive things about Wally Gropius is the way you play with narrative. The reader learns things gradually and it's all presented in the form of these separate seemingly unconnected short stories and you still build it into something bigger. It’s a lot of fun.

Yeah, I actually got a book from the library about writing a romantic comedy and consulted that to write that story. They always talk about there being this crisis point in a narrative where all hope is lost, then you have the happy ending. And I was like, oh, okay we’ll just stop it at the crisis point [Laughter]. In a way it’s a traditional story like that, except there’s no resolution to it. It’s just kind of a nightmare. Maybe that’s not a good description. I guess it could have ended more conventionally maybe.

wallyWell, there’s the wedding, the classic comedy ending is to have the wedding, like in Shakespeare. But it is interesting that you said that because I was going to mention that it ends with it seeming like the con man stole all of Wally's money and then it seems like Wally’s still fine, and it doesn't really matter anyway [Laughter]. It kind of ends and kind of doesn’t end.

I think in the traditional sense of those clichés of those kind of comics you go issue to issue and previous events don’t accrue. With Richie Rich, obviously there’s no impediment to the amount of money that he has. I mean, a lot of times people are trying to steal money or scheme against him, but I think when I read those comics I thought, you know, con men usually don’t wear masks. They don’t dress like a classic criminal. They just sort of talk people out of their money. That would have been a different story line and probably would have been funnier, but basically it was along those lines.

It seems like some cartoonists are naturally stronger working on shorter stories and some are naturally better at doing longer pieces. Was it difficult at all to make that transition for you?

Well, I think the idea of having a shorter story ... I mean, some of that was a necessity of being in Mome. I think one of the problems you have if you serialize a longer work is that if a reader comes at it and just picks it up they don’t remember what happened before, so I was trying to make stuff self-contained enough so that if someone wasn’t following it, maybe they’d get something out of it. It was also the way that a lot of those teenager comics, you know, the pacing, there’s just nothing that’s longer than six pages a lot of the time. I think also because it was my first time doing something longer that as much as you can compartmentalize everything into smaller tasks the more of a chance you have to get through it. I wasn’t thinking, oh, I have this many pages left. I think it was like 275 panels, and I was literally going like, okay, now I have 273 panels left [Laughter].

The way you structured it, it reminds me a little bit of some of the John Stanley comics where he’ll have lots of different shorter stories with different characters acting as the protagonist, and later they come together as a whole, but you don’t realize it until you’ve read several of the stories.

I guess that’s true. I mean, one thing I try to do that I picked up from those comics is that when they had a reoccurring character they would always use the same headline type for that character’s name. Any time that character appears there’s that same logo for them. When the character has their own logo, it comes back whenever they have a story that’s just them. It sort of subconsciously makes it seem like it’s gonna be that kind of comic. If I could do two things at once that was good [Hensley laughs] if that happened.

The other thing is that I didn’t read every issue of MOME as they came out, and I didn’t really realize until Wally Gropius came out as a collection that it was one story. I always thought they were individual strips.

Yeah, that was also because I wasn’t consistent, and I wasn’t in every issue. I think Paul Hornschemeier was in every issue with his story that he was serializing, but I just couldn’t do it. So I think some people would complain that I didn’t tell a story, but hadn’t read the whole thing [Hensley laughs]. They’d say, oh, this doesn’t make any sense, so it was kind of a weird paradox. When I was in the Best American Comics one of the editors said, “Well, we could just do these in any order, right?” and I was like, “Well, no…” [Hodler laughs.]

It wasn’t that I was frustrated by you not telling a story, I just didn’t realize that you were even trying to do so. But I was amazed when I read the book as a whole how well it flowed as one long story.

I think that’s true with a lot of things that are serialized in general. That’s been my experience with almost everything I’ve read serialized and my impressions of it as I was reading it, even if I remembered what happened previously. Then all of a sudden when I was reading it collected you see the purpose of it, but it’s sort of obscured when you only get it in drips and drabs.

Yes, I had a similar experience in Zero Zero, with Richard Sala’s serial, The Chuckling Whatsit. I didn’t really enjoy it when it was just the individual stories, but when it was all collected together I loved it.

Yeah, I think that’s always gonna be a dilemma for somebody in an anthology. I think of myself as an anthology cartoonist ‘cause I’m not that prolific, so I think what the MOME thing taught me was to try to anthologize something, but also think about making it a book later. I think sometimes people can be in anthologies for years and then figure out a way to collect things as a book that they weren’t thinking in advance about, like, oh, I could do that. It’s frustrating because serializing can be a frustrating reading experience for someone. Even as an editor, they may be thinking, “This isn’t gonna work if I serialize this,” and wonder whether they’re gonna lose people because of these couple pages. I guess that’s a credit to Eric Reynolds who was willing to do stuff like that. Maybe that was why MOME didn’t continue. I’m sure there were other reasons for it, but who knows, that could be what was considered a problem with it.

I didn’t realize how much I’d miss MOME until it was gone. It really did leave a hole in the comics world. I guess the closest things now are those websites, like What Things Do and Study Group and places like that.

I follow those to a certain degree. Jordan [Crane]’s asked me to do stuff for What Things Do, but sometimes I feel like having it in print feels more like a real thing than when it’s on the internet. Sometimes I feel like there’s a dilemma where I put something up on a website and then I can’t find someone to publish it, ‘cause they’re like, oh, it’s already been on the Internet and no one wants to see it again. If you can do stuff really quickly then you can just serialize stuff on the internet and it works perfectly. Like if I did like a page a week I could do something like Forming and just have everything right there and you can read it and not have it diluted. But I can’t do that [Laughter].

You said that when you started out you were really into experimental literature at the time. Were there any authors or books in particular that you remember?

When I was in college I remember I had this religious studies class. It was on Ingmar Bergman and we watched all of his movies and the teacher for the Ingmar Bergman class, this youth pastor type, was in the library and he came up to me and I was reading Recollections of the Golden Triangle by Alain Robbe-Grillet, and I think it was like, not pornographic, just adult content, but I felt embarrassed that he was gonna find out what I was reading. So I didn’t tell him what it was, but that would be something I read that was experimental. I was into Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities and stuff like that. I was also into the Oulipo stuff, Raymond Queneau. I was reading a lot of that stuff. In a way it seemed similar to what I was doing at the time, but I kinda grew out of it because I almost felt like if someone’s going to write something like that, I don’t want to know what the constraints are. I don’t want to be told that this book doesn’t have the letter E in it. I just want to read it and if I figure it out on my own, that’d be more interesting than if I had already known.

In a way that’s sort of what Wally Gropius feels like. You sort of have these constraints that you put on yourself that are very open, where it’s a teen comic, a romance, you have the format itself, the serialization issues, the drawing style, and all those different things. It’s more accessible, but it's not that dissimilar in some ways.

It’s definitely like that. I mean, it’s almost like if you tried to think of something like, this is gonna be my life’s work, the best thing I’m gonna create, it’s gonna be the greatest thing ever, you just never get started [Hensley laughs]. If you think, oh, I’m gonna spend five years working on something about a teen millionaire, it’d be like, “Why would you do that?” [Hodler laughs]. But I guess it’s best not to think about it either way.


Did you really do it because you thought MOME was a young-adult series, as you've previously said, or was that a joke?

No, that was kind of true. I thought, well, it’s kind of a thing for teenagers, because it was supposed to be the same cast in every issue. It felt like we were on a reality show [Holder laughs]. Nothing could have held that idea together because the lives of cartoonists are in such disarray that something like that would be hard to keep going.

That might be a good idea, to have an anthology where a different cartoonist is voted out of the anthology every issue [Hensley laughs].

Yeah, but do the cartoonists vote, or do the readers vote? That would be a tough one. I’m sure most cartoonists feel that way while they’re working on it, that they’ve been voted off while they’re still there.

It’d be too cruel, really.

I guess that’s why those shows are popular because everyone kind of thinks like that [laughter]. Well, in an anthology, the problem is trying to keep it consistent and have everything flow together and have it work, and I don’t envy that task. I think with the lead time that you getto create something for those things, you have to really be on the ball to come up with something. ‘Cause you want something that has a certain amount of pages and then if you only find out about it a couple months in advance -- I think that was what made what I did end up working well, because I tried not to think about it being in Mome. I just thought, here’s a chance to put together something that I can publish later as a book. I had that problem a lot of the times when someone asked me to do an anthology and they’d say like, “You have two months,” and I’d think, “Oh, God, hack it out.” I think when I was unemployed that was how I was able to do the Kramer's 7 thing, which was the one big page, but was really four pages. I was able to do that and it worked out pretty well while I was working on Wally Gropius at the same time. Because I’ve been working I haven’t had that same ability to do two things at once. Though I guess I’ve just been doing these tablet drawings, which I don’t consider a real thing.

You talked about this a little earlier but was it difficult to learn the style of Wally Gropius, to train yourself to do that?

One thing I remember doing is that I didn’t start drawing the character on the first page, ‘cause I had heard that if you start drawing a character your hand just gradually softens, or the shape of whatever it is ends up changing over the course of it until you finally arrive at what the character’s supposed to look like. I mean, drawing in general is just really difficult for me, the dilemmas that you have, even when you’re trying to do something really simplified, for me I just can’t really do it. I don’t feel the ease with the drawings I do in terms of them flowing naturally. A lot of times they present problems to me that I try to figure out and don’t arrive at a successful conclusion.

Well it’s interesting that you say that cause they look so slick and perfect and you really replicate the effect really well, so just looking at it, it’s hard to believe that you struggle with it.

Well, part of it’s like a perspective thing. If you think of any idea of what’s gonna happen in a panel, then you have to figure out if you’re sort of following the rules of time and space. You think, okay, there’s gotta be a horizon line to it, and where is that horizon line? If I’m looking at what’s happening in a panel, am I high up or low down? If I’m in that position, where are the other things in that panel in relation to that. Then you get into the problems of the characters. They have to act. They have to have a body posture, position. That’s a big thing in teenager comics, the gestures and the body language in those things, because, in a superhero comic for example, maybe the problem is you have to articulate musculature and people socking each other, but in a teenager comic a lot of what’s supposed to be amusing is what the characters do, their takes. You want to try to repeat that stuff, but also make the character unique from drawing to drawing.
I saw the blog post where you said that you used pictures from Phil Donahue’s autobiography as references. Do you use a lot of photo references for gestures and postures?

In that case I thought, well, he’s gonna be in the studio and he’s going to be really intensely focused and in deep thought, and for some reason I just thought of Phil Donahue back when he had that talk show. I just went to a used bookstore and found it, and I was like, yeah, that’s perfect. The Google image search is really good if you have to do a particular drawing. I did a drawing of a character bowing, like a deep bow that’s a kind of aristocratic kind of bow, and you can think of something like that in your mind, but part of it can be seeing it in a photograph. Making it look exaggerated or cartoony can be a challenge and if you look at a reference of it, it can make the drawing more effective. You don’t want to get into something where you’re just making something so photo-referency that you just see the stiffness of the fact that it’s following the normal logic of everyday life. But that’s also something with the Hitchcock strips I did. There are a million pictures of him, and yet if you see a picture of him in 1931 and then in 1957 he’s doing exactly the same thing. He’s always got his hands behind his back or he’s sitting next to the camera with his hands interlaced. But I feel like those things are helpful to make the drawings come across better, that I sometimes look at a reference to try to get the gesture that I’m drawing and that’s also what can slow something down because if I’m working on a panel that has a lot of people in it then it’s almost like, well, okay, this character is doing this and the other character this—yeah, if you get in a crowd, then it gets complicated.

How long does it generally take you to draw a page?

I think the fastest I’ve ever got was two weeks to do a page. That was when I was unemployed, and that’s pretty bad, but it’s not unheard of. I think most people are like, oh, I do a page a day or I do five pages a day. I always imagine everyone’s just laughing at me. When I was doing these Hitchcock daily things, I was doing them separately as strips and then I’d put them together so it’d be like a thirty-panel page. There’s no way around it. You think like, oh, if I make the panels really tiny then there won’t be a lot of detail so it won’t take as long, or if I make one big panel then it’ll be a splash page and it’ll go quicker because it’s only one picture, but it’s all surface area. Everything is surface area no matter what you do, so it takes how long it takes. I always think, well, if somebody’s reading it they don’t care how long it took me to do it, but I think you just have to put yourself in a different frame of mind like, “I’m just not that kind of cartoonist,” or “ I’m just not gonna get that much done and hopefully it’ll be good what I do.”

So when you were a full-time cartoonist were you working regular eight-hour days, or was it not that rigid?

I can’t tell what’s wrong with a drawing unless I get up and walk away from it and come back to it. Then all of a sudden it’s clear. I look right at it and I know, oh, that’s wrong, and I’ll have to erase it. I don’t understand how someone could sit down for eight hours and draw comics. I could see sitting down for two hours, go for a walk, come back, and work for an hour and a half.

I think that sounds very normal and natural, in all kinds of creative endeavors.

I mean, it’d be like that if you were writing something too. You have to have the distance from it. I mean, there are times when if you get into the right frame of mind you can be productive and you can probably sit for eight hours and do something straight through and have it work. But a lot of times when I’m working on comics I feel you get into a thing where all of a sudden you realize you’re cutting corners or you almost feel like the panels you’re putting on the page are starting to feel too consistent, too similar to one another— I don’t know, it’s a weird subconscious thing.