A Quiet Talk with Leslie Stein

Gary Panter and Leslie Stein, June 22, 2015. Photograph by Don Stahl.
Gary Panter and Leslie Stein, June 22, 2015. Photograph by Don Stahl.

On the occasion of Leslie's Stein's latest book, Bright-Eyed at Midnight (a collection of painted one-page comic strips completed during 2014), we asked artist Gary Panter to interview the Brooklyn-based cartoonist. Here they are.

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Leslie Stein: Did you drink your chocolate milk today?

Gary Panter: Heh. Just drank my night-time glass one minute ago. What was your first aesthetic experience? Or experiences.

I grew up in Chicago, and the Chicago Tribune had a huge comics section in every Sunday paper. Before I could read my mother would read them to me aloud. It’s actually one of my happiest childhood memories. Later I found Archie, which is still a huge influence on me.

What were your favorite Sunday comics? Did you wonder about how they were made?

I liked Foxtrot, Peanuts, Brenda Starr, Dick Tracy, For Better or Worse, Beetle Bailey, Blondie. Man, I liked everything, I read my favorites first and then went through and read all the rest, even the ones I didn’t like. What were the comics like in Texas?

We got the Dallas Morning News, which had Prince Valiant and  Captain Easy and also Peanuts, Wizard of Id and  BC which were more modern comics. My friends got the FT Worth Star Telegram which had the older comics I liked better, Batman, Dick Tracy, Tarzan, Popeye, Alley Oop, Snuffy Smith. so I looked at them at friends houses when I could. In Oklahoma,  relatives had stacks of GRIT newspapers which had black and white comics like Mandrake and the Little King and Blondie and the Duchess.

Did you watch the Dick Tracy animated series in the early 60s? That was a huge influence on a collage style I used to do, flat consistent colors but everything wonky and words falling off signs in the backgrounds…

Stein's early cut-paper work.
Stein's early cut-paper work.

Yeah. I watched Saturday morning cartoons into my teens. Cartoons are such different creatures from the comics. Do you mean the collage work you did at SVA? There was a very stylized Lone Ranger cartoon back them, but it was pretty unwatchable story wise. Looked like it was designed by Georges Rouault.

Yeah The collage work. The Lone Ranger cartoon looks great. I never liked his stories. I tried to listen to the radio drama version of it from the '30s and couldn’t .

When did your identity as a drawer emerge?

Pretty much immediately, or as soon as I had some sort of motor skills. I drew all the time, I was that kid throughout school. I have some comics I drew around 5 or 6, and I especially liked illustrating my own stories on notebook paper and stapling them together to make little “books”. One I ran into recently when I was back home was about an invisible man who was menacing a town, so the town found him an invisible lady and he never bothered them again.

The Sunday comics sections were so immersive. It was so great to to be surrounded by color. Your color comics are like that in that there is a landscape of color the story is inhabiting that envelops the reader. Paintings are like that. Did you like art or go to museums growing up in Chicago? Are you a museum goer?

No one in my family was interested in art. I lived with a single mom, she liked to take us to the movies. When I visited my father he was very interested in educating us, but he was a history buff, and liked architecture, so mostly that was the focus. Now of course, I like to go to see art, but because I’m so busy and have this weird nocturnal lifestyle, I go less than I should, especially for a human living in New York.

Do you still have comics from your childhood? Stacks of Archies? Do you save stuff or throw it away?

I don’t have any, I either threw them out or gave them away. I’m actually a minimalist when it comes to my personal space. Having too many things stresses me out, and I moved around a lot in my early twenties.

We both have nocturnal lifestyles, which is great for making work, because the incoming people information slows down. You earn a living tending bar? Do you like it? And the solitude?

I do. I realized early on I wasn’t going to make a living drawing comics so I went for a job where I could make a lot of money in a short period of time so I could draw most of the time. It’s a very strange dynamic, spending most of my time alone with my thoughts and then suddenly being thrown into a situation where I have to talk to 100 different people a night. That was a huge part of me starting this project, feeling like I was giving away all my energy to strangers, and then being awake all night alone with no one to talk to. So I started drawing about my days, or nights, rather, and just threw them into the void with the idea that no one would really read them.

The rendering of your character self is very childlike and the color is a blazing flower corridor which adds up to the whole thing coming across as very hopeful and vulnerable yet dealing with adult issues. Like life, the whole deal is kind of heart breaking and yet tough.


I feel like the toughest thing to do in life is to give oneself over to vulnerability. I was having a difficult time during the year I made these, and I didn’t even really write about a lot of what was actually happening, but I feel like it’s in the open spaces. Really, why one is feeling any certain way doesn’t really matter, because whatever causes emotional pain doesn’t really exist, but whatever lingering emotion that comes from these events are reality, and are tactile in a way. I’m always more interested in exploring emotion over anything else. I have nothing to say, no social or political agenda. My art is graffiti. “We express whatever, whatever it is.” - John Coltrane

How did you evolve or decide to switch from black and white to color?

Well, with the Eye of the Majestic Creature stuff that I’ve been doing for the last 10 years, black and white is just the style of that particular comic. I was striving for consistency with that. But really, any time I pick up a new drawing tool, my style changes to work with that tool in the way I feel like I can manipulate it best. All these projects I start are basically impulsive, and I basically just continue with them out of stubbornness. I think before I started this I felt something coming on, a desire to be creative. I’m still creative with the black and white comics, but that style is mature. It’s way more fun to be immature.

I can’t think of any color strips that are like your (no box) modern art paint compositions. Are there any prototypes for what you are doing?

I think this style is kind of a hybrid of different interests of mine, folk art, children's books, and classic looking strips. Adolf Wolfi, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Mouk, Nipper, Peanuts...I wasn’t really looking at anything in particular when I was making them, but sometimes after I’d finish a comic or painting I’d be like “Oh, that’s such and such coming to the surface!”

Stein's version of Wolfli.
Stein's version of Wolfli.

At what age did you start making music?

I started playing guitar when I was twelve. Was too shy to sing in public until I was 22. You?

I got my first guitar at twelve, but no training and disapproval of church. Is your songwriting like your comic making at all?

Totally unrelated. You?

They are different, but deal in mental pictures and coded emotions and both need structure and some refinement.

I guess the things I enjoy most about doing either ones are connected. My favorite thing about making comics is watching things develop, when I’m in the middle of a page and its shaping up and it has potential. When I’m done with the page I could care less. I love the recording process for the same reason, layering sounds and listening to things take shape. But my songwriting doesn’t involve layering at home since it’s just me and my guitar and then I bring a melody and a riff to practice and let the others do what they are best at. I used to do more 4-track stuff on my own. Both are emotional, yeah, there’s that.

Tell more specifics of the Jimi Hendrix shrine. please.

My pleasure. Strawberry incense, black candles (some shaped like hearts), a couple red candles, magic 8-ball, Unicorn calendar. I always wanted to be a witch when I was little and I went to the magic shop a lot.

Did you like Wendy the Good Little Witch comics? Did you learn magic tricks?

I know it but didn’t read it! No no tricks, I was interested in spells. Love spells. I also bought a tarot deck and told my friends I knew how to read it and just made a bunch of shit up… probably not dissimilar to what the professionals do.

Haha. Did you scare kids with doomy fortunes? --can’t imagine that you did.

I don’t remember what I told my friends but I’m pretty sure I didn’t scare anyone. I’m generally a gentle person.

Yeah, I can’t imagine you telling anyone that they were doomed.

I wasn’t mean, rather sullen and quiet and disapproving.

So did you keep drawing comics from childhood on, or was there a break?

Yeah from 14 to 17 I was “punk” or whatever that meant in the 90’s, and was more interested in doing, I dunno, I mean it was still art in a cartoonish style, but not comics comics. Lots of skulls and naked women with no heads and y’know horrible teenager art. What did you like to draw as a teenager?

I copied hippie art from Crumb, Moscoso, Griffin, Durer, Picasso and fake John Lennon stuff. Too repressed to draw naked headless women. Haha cried a lot in the pasture out back!!!!

I didn’t get into Crumb until I was about 18, I loved the Freak Brothers, Spain, all the hippie comics. I was living in San Francisco then too. Totally started EOTMC in that vein, and even printed it on newsprint to make it look old. Also, to give it some sort of authority because I wasn’t very good at drawing comics yet. I wasn’t raised with religion so never felt that guilt, that sounds stressful.

I didn’t spend all my time weeping! I built a hippie dungeon in my garage. There was a 60s comic called Inner City Romance that was so strange that it was interesting. It could’ve been called all-kinds-of-hippie-type-people-fucking-all-over-the-place-for-some-kind-of-revolution. It wasn’t a favorite, but interesting and kind of grim. Jay Cotton and I did a really infantile stupidly dirty comic called Pee Dog which was as transgressive as we could get it,  though the main thing was that  it needed to be funny--not sexy. That kind of was enough of that. Took the Pee Dog cure.

You attended two art schools? How did it go at art schools? Did you fit in? Did you find mentors? Good adventures?

Yeah, I was an interdisciplinary student at the San Francisco Art Institute, I was trying to get away with making comics, people were not impressed. I took a lot of printmaking classes and enjoyed lithography and etching. I loved living in San Francisco and made a lot of friends and had a lot of adventures. I got to take a class with George Kuchar, who would try to get as many people to take off their clothes as possible for his films he made with students. I modeled a lot for my boyfriend at the time who was a photographer, MTV bought a picture he took of me in my underwear and it was blown up on their building in Times Square for a year. Lots of nudity and insanity at that school.

That boyfriend moved here to go to Cooper Union, so I came with and started at the cartooning dept. at SVA… which was a totally different experience. I just kind of viewed it as time to make things before I had to get a job. I could hand in comics as assignments, hey yeah, why not, cool. I didn’t feel like I needed instruction, I just knew I had to wade through a lot of my own crappy drawings before I’d get good, which I was aware was far down the line.

Must’ve been a comedown culturally. The weirdest thing at SVA is if someone dresses like a bear. You made the very complicated cut paper stories in your senior year.

Yeah, after being at SVA for a month, I knew it wasn’t going to be a place for me to feel inspired socially, so I went downtown and got a job at Mondo Kim’s on St. Marks, and met, actually most of the best friends I have now. Two other people in my band worked there. It’s a shame it closed. I guess that paper style was interesting? I was too young to know how to write, I spent three years on that comic. It’s sitting on a shelf.

It was a very time intensive way to make a story. But cool.

Well, thanks, it helped me learn about composition… haha yeah then I started stippling. I think I had this thing in my head that if I made a comic page in less than ten or twenty hours I was being lazy and it was no good.

A page from Eye of the Majestic Creature.

There is a lot to be said for slowing down and really inhabiting the process and story. You spend a lot of time awake when people are asleep working, so the band you are in, Prince Rupert’s Drops, must be a world of not-solitude and music. You guys are a really good band. If you can describe band life a little-- what is it? The life of it?-- and also tell if you have done a million flyers and record covers for the band and other bands?

Prince Rupert’s Drops is a psych band. That’s how people mostly describe us. There are five of us. Y’know, it’s like a family, we love each other and we get on each others nerves. The other guitar players name is Bruno and we worked at Kim’s together and lived with each other in Sunset Park. At night we’d get drunk and we’d jam. It was fun, then his band Dan Melchior’s Broke Revue split up and we started a band with the other dudes from that band. I remember being so nervous just  going to practice because I had just started singing and the guys were older and more seasoned than me.

I’ve played with other bands, went on a tour with a band in 2008 playing bass and got to play Red Rocks and fun stuff like that. The whole time I was aching to work on my comics though, so y’know...

I have done a bunch of art for the band, my favorite flyer I worked on with Gary Panter. I’ve done stuff for a couple other bands, but I bartend so I can have money so I don’t have to draw anything I don’t want to.

Also, for the record, I know the name is terrible, and it was not my idea.

It is a fine name for a psych band.

Sure. It sounds like a band that had one good song in the 60’s that made it onto a Nuggets boxset, but try saying it outloud in a bar… “”Prince what?... Prince Robert Frost?” Not the easiest name to remember and look up.

One of my favorite things about Japanese salaryman comics are the embarrassed silences where someone has accidentally caught another person’s gaze and the balloon that appears between the parties is empty with a vertical zip of dots denoting the time that passes and the inexpressible complex of communications in the silent agony pause. Your work is full of these symbols for pauses and inchoate and too-full-of -information moments to clarify. Do you have a set of these symbols that you can decode or are they fluid in meaning? Do you keep inventing them all the time?

I think they are fluid in meaning. I suppose I event new ones in every comic. The thing that has been fun and liberating about this style is that is so freeform I feel like it’s constantly evolving at a very quick rate, as opposed to the other styles I’ve worked with.


Did you always have a strong sense of self and ambition to achieve something? Why comics? You have said that your Mother reading the Sunday comics to you was important.

I love comics more than any other art form. When I found stuff Fantagraphics was printing in the 90’s, when I was a teenager, a switch flipped in my head and within a few months I was trying to draw my own. They combined all I was interested in at the time, craftsmanship, writing, individualism, misanthropy, rock and roll…

As far as ambition is concerned, I can get pretty obsessive, and a bit competitive, but more so with myself than anyone else really. I was interested in respect more than popularity, always. It’s hard as a young person, as a young woman to achieve that, I don’t know if I have. I still feel like I should be better for the amount of time I’ve been doing this. I feel like the comics that have touched me are a gift, and I couldn’t imagine not trying my damnedest to create something worthy of this medium that I love.

Y’know I have a hard time with interviews because I feel like I’m a bundle of contradictions, but being aware of that and accepting that can bring surprises. This book, a huge theme in it is probably acceptance… which makes sense with how I came to make it. I had always been extremely wary of putting work on/formating my work for the internet. But I decided that I wanted to try and view things differently, and instead of seeing it as self-promotion, to view it as sharing. I was publishing all these pages on my tumblr, I saw them as strips, but since I didn’t have to conform to a newspaper layout I could be creative. At first they were all just single pages, but then some stories got longer, and then sometimes I would just make a painting. I thought to myself, since consistency is important in my other series, this should be a free-for-all of whatever I want to do that day, that moment.

Also, because I really didn’t think anyone would be seeing them I felt very open to say things directly. And it was therapeutic, it took my mind off other things and I could focus on my little memories and colors. Now this book is coming out.  Life is so odd. nCan I ask you to elaborate on your feelings about ambition? I have heard you say that when you were young you wanted to be famous.

I’ve always wanted attention and been a ham and ashamed of being a ham. So there is maybe a neglect or need or lostness that is needed to be adjusted. And maybe from religion, or maybe from some inward deal, I feel like I am being watched by something interested in what I  might do. Humility is important but shouldn’t quash ambition and curiosity. We are short lived, so it’s important to do stuff that makes one feel OK or that something was lived. And I think as animals and somewhat connected beings that we are in this together and that the simple ego of the sensitive artist can speak to unasked questions for humanity so we can not be so pitiful and stupid over the longer term.We die off but artists throw a little rock into the future. Being a bundle of contradictions is richer.

Stein's take on Eugene von Bruenchenheim.

I want to understand myself, and I suppose part of this comes from the need to feel understood. When I’m organizing my thoughts in order to make a comic, I feel a richness for life and being alive and all that it brings. Telling stories establishes connection and empathy, as you were saying. But also, to contradict myself, I feel like art is man’s way to harness his own self-destructive element. You can see this from watching children. A beautiful blanket of snow falls to the ground and what do they want to do? They want to stomp on it and piss on it and make things out of it. A piece of paper is fine on it’s own, it’s a creation someone else made from elements, and what do I want to do to it? I want to fuck it up, to show I exist.

But you are not making the paper look worse. I get your point though. Existing. One has to risk totally fucking up the paper and the artist has to feel that they are more valuable than the paper. The artist has to act.

I know, it all just seems kinda silly sometimes. I read this interview with Woodring where he was saying something alongs the lines of, if I was a more enlightened individual I’d be happy sitting and meditating instead of having to amuse myself with these silly drawings. But I don’t know if he really believes that, I don’t know if I do either. I find making a life around creating art both beautiful and dismal.

Yeah, that sounds boring--being happy and meditating and being evolved. Somewhat lower consciousness is where the action it.  That last place you were describing beautiful and dismal. The higher consciousness is where the story...well, it can be a placid lake, but eventually I want a fish to jump.

Well, yeah art is about humanity. Not being so human and broken seems kinda nice though…

Do you have a new comic project or continuation? 

I have about a month or two of work left on Eye of the Majestic Creature Vol. 3… then I’m going to start a self-contained story that I’ve been thinking about for a few years and finally feel confident to start working on.

It is cool that you are making so much work and books and records so that the person who gets into your work has a lot of landscape to explore. The good reader wants more.

You too!  I think I might  keep on making little lines that show I exist until I don’t.  Living in New York, I see so many people every day and wonder where they are all coming from. How do they live? What do they want? So, y’know, here I am, in case anyone else wonders.

I really like it in your comics when the page gets whipped up into a crazy quilt color storm. And how the weather on the pages reinforces the emotions.

I love working with color. I love color more than pizza. We both seem to have a taste for loud color. A lot of your paintings look like candy. I’d love to start painting bigger, but it’s a huge money/time/space commitment for something I’m not sure I’d be good at. Maybe once the comic ideas dry up… I’m kinda excited for that to happen. Sometimes I feel like I have too many ideas and am racing against time.

It will be very feasible to start painting at a different scale, I am sure. Too many ideas is a good thing really.

Want to play a show over the summer? I’ll bring you a jug of chocolate milk!

Of course! Yeah. Making music with my friends is one of the biggest joys in my life and chocolate milk is nice, too.

Cool beans. I’ll be drinking whiskey. You can have some too.

OK, deal.