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

When we were first trying to set up this interview, you said you had pretty weird working hours. Is that still true?

I have a very challenging stressful job and I can’t really guarantee when I’m gonna get off of work. Before, I used to work on comics after work and just sit down and work for a little bit after, and now I have to get up in the middle of the night and work on comics before I go to work. That’s good 'cause there’s nothing else to do, but the lack of sleep has taken its toll over the course of time. Sometimes I’ll have to not push it or else I get sleep deprived, but in a way I almost don’t care if the work I do at my day job isn’t exemplary, that’s not a problem for me. I just need to figure out a way to make a living where I do something more conducive to doing comics. It’s a lot like having two jobs.

The closed captioning seems easy in some ways but also possibly tiring mentally.

A lot of times you can’t coast when you want to. You have to pay attention when you’d rather not. When I had the captioning job before I was really more neurotic, and now the work pace is so fast that a lot of times things go through and I just don’t watch them because I can’t. I got Lawrence of Arabia once and it was a rush job. It was a David Lean three-hour movie and I had a half hour to do it. I just synced it; I don’t know if it was right or not.

When you were interviewed on Inkstuds a few years ago, you said you had kind of a weird job having something to do with Internet pornography.

Hensley: Yeah, when I was working as a temp at Yahoo! there was a time period there where I was examining the sponsored links that go to pornography if you search on something. You get what the search term is and then you’d see what the website was. You’d have to make sure that they have disclaimers saying that everyone was over 18, or you’d have to make sure there were no ball gags or electrocution or whatever. A lot of the stuff you wanna sort of un-see [laughter]. A lot of the time I imagine there’s some person who’s like, “Oh, wow, you get to work on pornography all day!” but it’s definitely a pretty dreary thing to do.

Especially that much of it, all the time.

Yeah, you know, it was never arousing, just kind of, “Oh, here we go again,” looking at dildos and lubricant.

It sounds like that was not your dream job.

But in a way it was okay to do comics with that kind of job, ‘cause that was definitely something where you didn’t— I mean how important was that as a job? I mean, it’s wasn’t like, “Oh, we’ve got to get this link up to this pornography site [Holder laughing], people are waiting!” It’s not exactly something you want to bring up with your relatives. If you say you’re working at a giant Internet conglomerate, maybe that’s more impressive.

With Wally Gropius, I told you I wasn’t gonna ask you what you meant by everything, but there was one joke on the back cover that I wanted to ask you about, the joke about him making a doorknob out of rectangles. I felt like I was missing something from that.

Well, if you ever look at the Bauhaus studio, instead of having round doorknobs, the doorknobs are on a right angle. They look like toilet handles.

That makes complete sense. That was just me being ignorant. I should have gotten that joke [Hodler laughs].

Well, you could always argue if you’re telling a joke and you have to explain it, maybe it’s not the best joke. On the other hand, I think some kind of jokes are funny if you figure out why they’re funny later on. If you don’t know right off the bat why something is funny and then if you discover why it’s funny, that can be a really nice thing [Hensley laughs].

Sometimes in the background in Gropius, there’ll be visual reference to things, like a poster of somebody or a book, and I don’t know if they’re meant to be jokes, or just random images.

Sometimes I like things that are just related to the person’s character, like if you look at a lot of teenager comics, if they show somebody’s room, they’ll show posters of The Beatles or something. I thought, well, if Jillian is into national anthems, what kind of posters would she have? So she has a poster of Howard Cosell, a poster of [Hodler laughing] Jane Jarvis, who’s like a Major League organist for a baseball stadium.

Oh yeah, and she had a Kate Smith poster too.

HKate Smith, who of course is really famous for singing "God Bless America". Or The Dropouts and Wally, you know, instead of having an Op-Art poster he would have one that’d say F.D.I.C. or whatever. A lot of those things are jokes semi-related to the characters in a sort of abstract way.

What made you pick Huey Lewis?

I think one of my biggest regrets about the book was that I didn’t just come up with an abstract celebrity, like just make one up off the top of my head. Like, the one Charlie Brown uses, Joe Shlabotnik. I don’t think he’s a real baseball player, as far as I know. But a lot of those teenager comics had appearances by musical figures in them. They’d either be guests in the strip or they would have the obligatory text page they’d have to have in order to qualify for a postal rate, some text piece about Vanilla Fudge and pictures of them. So I guess it fits into it that way. I told a story about a friend of mine too, who was into the Village People, but then he found this other group called the All Sports Band and they were like the Village People but each of the band members was a different athlete [Hodler laughing], a baseball player, a football player or whatever.

All SportsI wanted to ask you about the Hitchcock strips, which we touched on briefly before. It seems like a lot of the jokes in those are pretty closely based on his life, or at least on stories told about him.

I think after I finished Wally Gropius I did one of those for The Believer, for their film issue. I did the one about Marnie. That was based on reading Spellbound by Beauty, which I got from the library. This was a period where I was unemployed and I was going to the library all the time. All the library books weren’t current, so they had a million books about Hitchcock there; you know it’s not really a current source of interest for most people. He was one of the first directors who I tried to see a lot of his films when I was in high school. I think what I ended up doing because I was at the library so much was, after I got the idea of doing the anecdotes, I just read through the biographies and anything that I thought was interesting I’d make a little thumbnail of it as a strip. I tried to get things that a lot of times weren’t specific to him as a person, but just like a general human situation.

Like the one about him only having sex once, with a ballpoint pen or something? That was so…

Right, yeah, I mean, a lot of things that happen in the biographies is that they sort of allude to things and they aren’t specific. They always talk about how he had a foul mouth and he would say these things that were upsetting to people, but aren’t specific as to what they are. A couple of them talked about how he was filming some scene where somebody was getting off of a streetcar and this one extra, he apparently berated this person so much, but you never hear what it was he said. I think ‘cause I grew up in a showbiz family, my dad was constantly telling anecdotes about famous people he worked with. It just sort of falls in pretty naturally for me to dramatize them, and to also have a sort of detached view at the same time. The accretion of apocryphal stories eventually blurs a person’s identity.

Did you see either of the two Hitchcock movies that came out recently?

Yeah, I was all worried when I heard they were coming out. I thought, “This whole thing I’ve been working on for years is totally ruined.” But I mean, doing these comics is like doing comics about Marilyn Monroe or something. There are always going to be books or movies about the person. But, I did see the two movies and I didn’t think either of them was so good. I thought The Girl was better than Hitchcock. I felt like The Girl one was more like a Lifetime movie. The guy who wrote the script to the Hitchcock one was the guy who wrote the movie Black Swan and it was almost like he tried to do the same thing he did in Black Swan, some arc of a character going nuts.


I didn’t see that movie, but the trailers seemed ridiculous. It seemed like it was all fictionalized to make a drama out of it.

Yeah, that kind of stuff always cracks me up in biographical pictures where there are things that nobody would ever say that represent the hindsight of the audience. With the Hitchcock, movie Anthony Hopkins seemed kind of absurd to me. He didn’t really seem to capture the character with his acting. Having worked on doing all those anecdotes I thought, “People will just think I’m copying these movies now,” and I got all worried about it. Maybe that’s still true, I don’t know. At least no one will want to make a movie of my comics.

So you did the first strips for The Believer for a movie issue and then you just liked the Hitchcock character. Is that why you kept making more of them?

I did the one strip and then I had other anecdotes that I had thumb-nailed. Like I said, I was unemployed and I think when you’re unemployed and you can’t find a job, you just try to create some sort of routine to keep you from going stir crazy. So I was going to the library and getting all my entertainment from there because it was free. I was renting DVDs from the library, but this one library didn’t have such a great selection so I just was reading these old biographies of Hitchcock. Then I went to the downtown library and found even more. I just made a bunch of thumbnails and then I just worked my way through drawing them. When I thought about trying to figure out a way to make it into a book then I wrote a fictional thing that ties it together that’s totally different, I hope, but I don’t really want to talk too much about that.

Oh, I was gonna ask you about that. You don’t wanna talk about it?

It’s so far down the line. I mean, basically my sister passed away after my book came out, I was unemployed and I thumbnailed a bunch of stuff, and that’s my next book. The pieces are sort of related to each other, but also not. Some of them are adaptations and some of it’s fictionalized, I guess. It’s all related, but that’s pretty much all I’d say about it.

Okay. How far along are you? Do you have an idea of when you think it’ll be done, or is it too early to say?

The Hitchcock things I’m doing, I have eleven pages left. I spent two years doing what I consider the end papers of the book, which were 36 short four-panel daily strips. I think when I did Wally Gropius and I got to the end of it, I felt like I was cheating by just doing one big picture for the endpapers. The other thing that happens is that when you work on something for a long time the enthusiasm goes back and forth, so I wanted to do these things that were kind of short, but dense with a lot of panels, so that later on when I wasn’t as motivated I’d have less panels per page to surmount. I did dailies, now I’m doing some Sundays and then I’ll move on to a second part of the book, which is 29 pages. Then after that there’s another part that’s 46 pages, so that’ll keep me busy for years. The possibility of me finishing it is ... as I get older, it becomes more tenuous. I worry about it. But as long as I keep working I figure it might happen. I may not have a regular place to publish, but I just have to keep going.

I’m sure Fantagraphics would be interested in publishing the book, or if they won’t, someone else will.

Yeah, I feel like there are a bunch of places that would publish it when I’m done, but not until it’s done, and it’s not done [Hensley laughs]. I may cave and compile different portions in a printable way at some point. It’s too hopeless to contemplate most of the time.

About the endpapers, one of the things I really enjoy about your work is how much attention you put into the different things that are kind of off-to-the-side details. There’s a real comicbook-ness about your comics where things are packed into the kind of throwaway parts of the comic that you don’t always see in so-called serious graphic novels. Does that make sense at all?

Well, I didn’t want to do something that would fall into the category of being a graphic novel. I always was interested in the European comic format of having a 64-paged thing or whatever. That seemed like the perfect length for me. I also liked the idea of it being more compact, and that you’d have an opportunity, like if you ever read those biographical books about Edgar Jacobs or something, you see they have some newspaper clipping showing an exterior of some building they used when they were drawing one of the panels. They also did research for it and I liked the idea that it’s not like I’m just hacking the pages out. I don’t even know how based in reality my sense of what that format is like. I have no idea. In a way it’s almost better if I’m not aware of all the actual specifics of what people think goes into the European comic album format.

That’s part of the fun too with things like the national anthems, where I assume you made all those up.

Oh, no, no, those are all national anthem lyrics.

Ha ha, really? What?

Yeah, that’s what I mean about trying to have details. Like, when I ended up choosing the national anthems I got a book, National Anthems of the World, and I got all the lyrics for different national anthems. I think there’s one where he’s like, “Oh, you don’t know the words to that one,” and she’s like, “It’s an instrumental.” It was, as far as that book said. Some of that stuff may no longer be accurate. Like, the one name of the character who wrote the anthem for Thailand or whatever, it’s sort of an elaborate name and I thought that was interesting, so I wrote that down. Some things I tried to verify, and some things are just off the top of my head, like they just sound funny to me. In that case, with the lyrics for the national anthems, those are all…

Well, okay, I’ve been embarrassed twice now in this interview by saying something stupid.

No, no, I mean… [Hensley laughs] If you think of it, no one really thinks of it as a genre, like, “Oh, I really like national anthems a lot,” but you could think of lots of genres of music and figure out ways of saying things that they have in common, lyrically or musically. My dad sent me a link that was like all the national anthems of the world combined into one audio clip. It pretty much sounded like what you’d expect. It wasn’t like a revelation or anything. It just sounded like bad Charles Ives or something, just like “BRRRR! [makes noise]” You know, just a bunch of nonsense.

That would’ve been amazing if it had been a revelation.

I know, if it all of a sudden, like everything fit together in a harmonious way, like that all the nations could be together [Hodler laughing] musically in some— There wasn’t any like, you know, United Nations of tonality or whatever.

One question I meant to ask you earlier is about the materials you used. Do you have a special process that you would mind sharing?

In all the cartooning books they say to use Strathmore Bristol board paper, but some cartoonists are talking about how the quality of it has declined and sometimes you can have a line that bleeds. I read some thread on the Internet where people were saying, “No, it’s not the paper, it’s the ink.” I believe Chris Ware actually called the Strathmore plant and said, “What’s wrong with the paper?” So I switched to Deleter Neopiko board. It’s this paper I ordered from Japan. It looks kind of cheap. It looks almost like the chipboard you get at CVS pharmacy or something, but I’ve found it doesn’t bleed, and it’s working good for me. It comes in its own plastic bag, so when I’m done I can seal it back up again. That’s the paper I’ve been using. It’s kind of small, too. My eyesight’s not as good as it used to be since I’ve been getting older, so I don’t want to work on one of those like, twice-up pages that are super big, so I split the page in half and have this smaller paper. That’s worked good for me.

For ink I use the Dr. Ph. Martin’s Black Star Matte for the brush. I use Speedball Super Black for the dip-pen. The reason I use the Speedball is simply because the bottle has a wider mouth for dipping. The Black Star works good on the brush for me because it’s super thick and it almost feels like hair gel working on the brush to help it hold its point. I guess sometimes it feels a little too thick and I wonder if maybe I should be thinning it out.

I use Rapidographs, and I use plastic templates for them, where it’s like a million different ellipses. If I’m drawing the bottom of somebody’s shoe, I’m gonna need like a curved shape that’s super orderly, and I’m usually using a Rapidograph to do that. I’m trying to make a combination of mechanical lines and then the free lines of the brush.

For lettering I use, uh… I don’t know what nib this is; it’s like a Japanese nib. It’s like blue metal, I don’t know what brand. When it breaks, I’ll have to switch to something else I guess. I use the Speedball B6 and B5 if someone’s shouting something in bold.

The kind of brush I use is a Rafael number 4. I tried using the Winsor Newton #2, which is also the standard size and that was working good for me. I do use that sometimes to fill in heavy black areas, but Rafael number 4 seems to work better for me; I can’t really explain why.

Did you use wash for the ones where it’s—?

Yeah, yeah, for that, that was just Dr. Martin’s watercolors that come in a bottle. They have a couple different shades of gray, but I think I use either the light gray or the medium gray and just get all the tones from that, just lighten it or darken it. Then, yeah, the coloring is all done in Photoshop.

And you colored Jaime Hernandez’s story in Kramer’s 7?

Yeah, I don’t remember if that was Alvin [Buenaventura's] or Sammy [Harkham]’s idea to do that, but it was really interesting, because when you color something you have to enlarge it super big to trace around the shapes the color is gonna appear in. So it was interesting to look at his line work. I found that there weren’t a lot of enclosed outlines in his work, like between the bridge of someone’s nose to their lip. That was fun. I’ve never really done anything like that before, and I guess he doesn’t usually color his comics himself. I was glad I got a chance to do that.

Before I was actually in Kramer’s, I did the lettering for the Norakuro story that was in there and for the sketchbook by this Mark Smeets guy. Sometimes it felt better, like I was participating and making the book happen, but I wasn’t actually in it and that was fine.

Do you enjoy lettering?

Yeah, I had done some lettering-type stuff. Adrian Tomine asked me to do the lettering for Black Blizzard, the cover of that. I don’t know why that happened, ‘cause obviously he’s a great letterer. He could have done that himself. But lettering is something where if I’m working on my comics, I don’t have to really worry about it so much. It’s something I feel I can do pretty good. Whereas when I get to, “Okay, you’ve done the lettering, now what goes in the box?” That’s where it starts to be like, “Oh, boy.”

black+blizzard+cover+tatsumiThat’s what that Black Blizzard logo reminded me of. Earlier, I asked you if you were in a commercial art program in school, and the reason I was wondering that was because you really are good at mimicking the graphic design of commercial art and book design. It’s amazing you were self-trained.

HYeah, I mean, a lot of the things that made me look old fashioned is not even so much “Oh, I’m trying to do it that way.” It’s just that the things I’ve looked at to learn how to do stuff is from looking at old books from libraries. Nowadays they teach classes for comics in schools and colleges, and that’s a different way of going at it. All of the knowledge I arrived at from comics is all from libraries pretty much. Part of my style is a result of that. If someone is disappointed in the retro qualities of my artwork, a lot of times it’s not because I’m trying to be retro, it’s just the way that I learned.

It's amazing how old methods get forgotten, and how valid and useful they can still be, even after they’ve fallen out of common usage. Like how Chris Ware brought back that whole style that revolutionized graphic design for a while.

One thing I think Chris Ware does really well is the isometric perspective where everything’s kind of flattened out. Sometimes I look at other cartoonists' work who are newer and I feel like they’ve looked at that, but they don’t really understand what he’s doing with it. They sort of have that same flattened-out look but they don’t really do it as well as he does. That’s sort of disappointing to me. I also feel like I lived during the end of the era of the stat camera to make artwork, where you do stuff twice the size, and have it photographed onto film and then it would shrink down and the line quality would be different. In the era we live in now it’s all done with scanners, and I think that a lot of how people draw is targeted towards that. People are working straight in pencils and doing stuff that a scanner can see and reproduce. I almost feel like an old-timer in that I’d have to unlearn what I know in order to work like people do now, figuring out ways of making comics without trying to be like Mell Lazarus or--Mell Lazarus is a bad example… Like, what’s his name, the guy who did The Heart of Juliet Jones, Stan Drake or someone like that. Glamourpuss is like that I guess.

Mell Lazarus and Stan Drake are... I never would have put them together [laughs].

I’ve seen the opposite extremes, but I think maybe the older generation of cartoonists also had those same role models and now people I think are more interested in art in general. They’re not limited by that. When they do comics they don’t think of it that way and that’s what’s interesting when you see something new going on, is it’s just visual art in any way to make a narrative or something.

Was Mell Lazarus your model for the art that you did in the "NSFW" story?

Basically a lot of those kind of ugly seventies or eighties newspaper strips like Wizard of Id and Tumbleweeds or Crock, I guess. I wanted it to be like an eighties newspaper strip and it also kind of looks like the Woody Allen newspaper strip from the seventies too. The main character looks kind of like that. That kind of appropriation is feeling more old hat nowadays. I feel like I finally got the hang of drawing in that way right towards when I finished the strip. Sometimes that happens, like, you finally figure out how to draw it when you’re just about done.

Are there any things that I missed that are important parts of your career?

I don’t know, it’s just funny for me to think of it as a career cause it just seems like so little. [Laughs]

Well, think of Walt Whitman, his whole poetry career was basically just one book, and it’s great.

I like the idea of Walt Whitman and how he continually revised the same book to publish. Sometimes I wish I could do that with comics. Sometimes you figure out stuff when you publish it. Like I remember having the pages appear in Mome and I’d be like, oh, I messed up using the magic wand when I was coloring that page, and when I changed the color I forgot this little section, and I could fix it. Yeah, I mean, I think people want to have a cartoonist who’s prolific, who has a lot of different books and does a lot of different work. I’ve managed to do that one book and sometimes it seems really fortuitous that it fell together as it did and it doesn’t seem like any guarantee of the future. All you can do is just try to keep going.

The Hitchcock strips I really like and I’m very curious to see how it ties in to this other stuff you’ve talked kind of vaguely about. It sounds like it’ll be a very interesting project.

With the Wally Gropius book, I think that was about 275 panels, and the stuff I’m doing now I’m currently at about 228 panels or so. I’ve done an okay amount of work, it just hasn’t really been published in a way that people would have access to it. When you spend five years drawing something, I think you want to not do the same thing again. In a way it’d almost be better if I could figure out a way to do the same kind of Wally Gropius book again, but I don’t think I could even if I wanted to. There is a continuity between certain things, what my sense of humor is, and the way that I draw stuff that hopefully people will be interested in. It’s weird. But I appreciate this interview to talk about these things, it’s amazing to me.