Jordan Crane has been an independent comics mainstay since the mid 1990s with the debut of his NON comics anthology and long-running Uptight series. I spoke with him about his recent release, Keeping Two, a comic 20 years in the making that finally found its way to publication, only to get trapped on board a container ship, the Ever Forward, after this interview was conducted in April. It will now be available from Fantagraphics on July 12, 2022.
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KATIE SKELLY: Jordan, congratulations on the book. It looks great.
JORDAN CRANE: Thank you.
Can you tell me about the timeline for making the Keeping Two comic? I’ve seen the issues of Uptight that go back to 2006 that include pieces of the story.
I started drawing it in I think 1999 or 2000. I was still living in Massachusetts, and the first drawings were of a stoplight that was around the corner from me where I lived in Davis Square. At some point along the way I realized I should probably just start making minicomics out of it, because I had a bunch of pages. I started printing the minis right after I moved to Los Angeles. I screen printed the cover of the first issue at John Pham’s house because he had a screen printing setup in his garage and he invited me over to use it.
So Keeping Two has been with you for 20 years at this point. Why was this the story you held on to?
[laughs] I knew it was going to be a long story. Before I started drawing it, every time I would finish a comic I would think, holy shit, I have no idea what my next comic is. I’m totally adrift here, I’ve got to come up with something. And so it would be this moment of terror. And then in one of these moments of terror Keeping Two came up and I wanted to tell this story about this very paranoid, awful experience that happened. I thought, aw great, let me invite other people into this experience. Once I started working on this story though, I always had something to return to, I always knew what was happening, what came next, so there was always something new to work on.
It looks like you aren’t redrawing any of the old comics for this collection.
That’s right. There were many years where I was like, I’m going to redraw the first 70 pages. I’m going to draw two pages a week, it’ll only take me a couple of months, it’s fine. But then I thought about how back in the ‘90s, I remember getting that first collection of Optic Nerve, and I loved how you could see Adrian [Tomine] getting better and better and better. And it was great to see that growth. So I left it how it came out, it’s more organic that way, it’s a good record of the comic as it happened.
The crux of the story is a couple’s paranoid fantasies about each other dying in a terrible accident. Is that something that actually happened?
Well, yes, there was a lot of catastrophizing. I spent a lot of time worrying about bad things happening to people I love. And then–this was before cell phones–the only way to find out was to actually see that person again. So there would be good stretches of evenings where I’d think, oh my God, they’re dead. Once, around Thanksgiving my wife Rebecca and I got home and she decided to go out and get some things for dinner and I stayed behind to do the dishes. And I finished and she didn’t come home for a little while. I was on an internal voyage going through the pits of hell, thinking oh no, what am I going to do, what if she’s dead. It was awful.
And this other time, when I was living in Massachusetts and I’d flown to California and we’d made plans to meet up at a bar. And then it’s 7:00, 8:00, 9:00, and I’m getting drunker and drunker and worrying and feeling awful. And then she showed up at 10:00, and she’d been catching up with a friend, got stuck in traffic… simple, nothing to worry about, everything was totally normal. I was experiencing this panicked sort of false loss frequently. It’s a big and consequential feeling. And so I decided, I’m going to do this story about this.
There’s this thing that written fiction does where people can be in a situation, and one of those people can start thinking about something and there’s 10 pages of them thinking about it and it’s a full story, totally engaging and interesting, and then you come back to the reality of them just sitting at a table. And I thought, what about that in comics? Why can’t that be a thing in comics?
So I saw how I could tell this story using these two things to tell the internal story of what was going on. After doing 40 or 50 pages of it, I started seeing how the different internal narratives braided together, how I could come back to it, each informing the other, and there was something there. I didn’t have to have that freak out feeling that I had nothing. I would keep returning to Keeping Two. And then it got to 2017, and Rebecca asked when I was finally going to finish it. I said I would finish it that year, but then several more years went by. [laughs]
Are you afraid of cars?
Haha, oh for sure. Yeah. That’s one of the number one ways people die. Cars are insanely dangerous.
Have you ever been in an accident?
Only small ones. I’m just justifiably afraid of what is a huge, looming disaster. I’ve never been in anything worse than a smash-’em-up.
A lot of love stories in comics focus on falling in love, the infatuation part. But then there’s this moment after falling in love and getting comfortable being together where it’s like oh shit, now I have to constantly worry about this person dying. It’s nice to have a comic that actually speaks to that feeling.
Funny. Right. The falling in love part is just this kind of sudden change story. The real meat of the being in love situation takes place after that. It’s a bigger and deeper story.
Do you think Keeping Two is a love story?
Oh, yes absolutely. All my favorite stories are at their core about love.
A lot of your storytelling here and in your previous work seems based around interpersonal conflict. The quarrels feel so real.
[laughs] Totally 100% lived. And I’ll say, there were times when I would be having an argument and think, oh, I see what happened there. I should use that. Conflict happens so fast, suddenly you can find yourself really arguing. And interruptions are like a formula for arguing. If you want to argue, just interrupt people.
I think it’s amusing when characters in a story are very clearly flawed and unaware of it. That’s how arguments usually are. Like when you’re standing by and watching it, it’s like, can you guys just back up and get a quick picture of yourselves? There’s definitely a perverse amusement to watching somebody be an asshole who doesn’t think they’re an asshole. They think they’re the good guy. Often I catch myself in that position, haha.
Another factor I noticed is that fate or chance drive your stories more than greater decisions being made by the characters.
It’s kind of a combination. Something happens and a person shows where their interests are and where their focus is by how they respond to it. In my own life, I’m very clear on the big things. But there’s a lot of static that comes on from being a human in the world. I point my boat in one direction and there’s a lot of turbulence coming in. If you spend your time getting all pissed off at that turbulence, that determines your experience, how you navigate in relation to the bigger things.
The book seems to posit that the interior experience is just as important as the lived reality.
Totally. Your internal experience is as important as the world around you, if not way more important. The internal world often dictates how we engage with the external world.
Something I really appreciate in the story is that the arguments are very balanced. You can’t point to one character and say they’re right over the other.
They’re both assholes! [laughs]
A lot of comics coming out of the ‘00s either really vilified or deified the wife or the girlfriend character. And so for this to have maintained a balance where she’s just a real person is refreshing. She has her own motivation and outlook.
I appreciate that you’re saying that. I can’t take credit and say I was intentionally setting out to avoid the that manic pixie dream girl nonsense, or to treat the woman differently in any specific way - I was just trying to draw people that felt real and living in the world, how they actually talk and relate to each other.
So in 2017 when you decide to finish the story, what happens?
I had all these projects, all these things. So much stuff. What was I even doing? I had put out the seventh issue of the minicomics, and then I had to figure out how the ending was going to land. I knew what the ending was, but I wanted to find a way to make it feel as dramatic as it felt in real life. I didn’t want it to be a Wizard of Oz type of ending where it was all a dream and not a big deal, because in the actual experience it was. Worrying that someone is dead is a big fucking deal, and when they are not dead, that’s a huge deal too.
In terms of a story arc, it’s the most boring story arc ever. She goes to the store, he stays home, she doesn’t come home when he expects her to so he worries about what happens to her, and then she comes home, and everything’s fine. I’m not really sticking to the time-honored story guidelines... It’s not Joseph Campbell taking a hero’s journey. [laughs] It’s like putting Chekhov’s gun on the table but it just never goes off in the 3rd act.
Tell me about the novel that plays out within the comic.
It has its roots in the book Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. It’s not the actual story, but that was a book Rebecca and I were reading in the car in real life. She had a short story that happened in that really uncomfortable territory of a marriage falling apart and dissolution, but still loving and trying to navigate. I really love that book.
Would it ever get confusing for you between writing the scenes that are happening in the imagination, the novel, and the reality of the story?
Never! But it would be really fun to look at a page out of context and think, is somebody gonna read this and have no idea what I’m doing? In the flow of it, it makes total sense, but out of context it won’t make any sense. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t want page numbers. It’s meant to be a flow. It seems weird to be able to be like “on page 47, panel 6…” I decided that’s not a luxury you get to do. If you experience it as a stream, nothing’s confusing. But I did worry about it a little bit.
Besides the page numbers, what was your level of involvement with the design of the Keeping Two book?
From the very beginning I wanted the book to be novel-sized, small. A nice book to hold. I’ve always loved rounded corners, like on composition books. They feel good, look good, so I use them where I can, starting way back with Cave-In, a book I designed for Brian Ralph. I make all my drawing books with rounded corners. The thing about rounded corners is they don’t get all dinged & smashed. They wear well.
I didn’t want the barcode to stay on the book. Because barcodes… why? It’s a single-use item, used for a point of sale. After it’s sold, there’s no purpose for it. It’s like an umbilical cord. Once you’re out of the hospital, it should fall off. If you can get rid of it, good. And so my challenge was like, how do I get people to take it off?
So I worked backwards. I thought, we’re going to make it small and basic. A sticker. I’m not going to hand-letter it or anything, I’m not going to make anything attractive or organic. What’s the smallest size we can make the barcode? That’s the size. What are the most basic UPC numbers? Send me those. And then, I was like, we’re going to give some visual instruction. So I drew a hand peeling it back to tell you what to do, but I had to be very careful and intentional about not making it a stylish hand. More like a hand on the instructions on the back of ramen. It’s not making you fall in love with it. And then I was thinking where to put it, and I was centering it, putting it at the bottom… and I thought to myself, stop it, you’re trying to figure out where it looks the best. What you want to do was make it look annoying and out of place. And then square corners on the sticker because it’s easier to get your fingernail under. And I asked them to use an adhesive that doesn’t leave any residue. Every aspect of it is pointed toward the maximum likelihood of removal. And then the final insult - put it on the book at an angle, make it unattractive. It’s a nag, it’s an itch. It’s a bug that you want to scrape off so that you can finally feel at ease. I was designing the barcode sticker for maximum irritation.
So, when they sent me the proofs of the book, I’d forgotten that I did all that. When I saw the sticker on the back I was like, agh! It looks awful! Why did I do that? I was irritated! And then I remembered, oh right, I did that on purpose! It totally worked. I was irritated by it, I peeled it right off and felt relieved.
And Fantagraphics was receptive to all of that?
Oh yeah. Fantagraphics has always been super good to work with. Always very agreeable to whatever things I want to do with making books, and I really appreciate that. Nothing is crazy to them.
How did you land on the green?
I knew it would be green from the beginning. It was a green story. If you go to the Internet Archive of my old website, reddingk.com, I ran probably the first 30 pages of it in green. It felt like the right tone. I used to never like the color green, but I find that things I never like I usually come around on. I’ve had a lot of experiences like that, where initially I’m like, that’s trash, and then two weeks later I’m in love.
I want to ask you about this note in the back as I haven’t seen it in a Fantagraphics book before: “Forest Stewardship Council certified paper from managed forests, chain of custody certified supply chain from forest to printer.” Was this something you asked Fanta to pursue?
I’d seen in the Ginseng Roots comics by Craig Thompson that it was printed in Wisconsin, and so I told [Fantagraphics Associate Publisher] Eric Reynolds that I wanted to print in the U.S. He looked and looked, got a couple quotes, but it turns out that there’s literally not a printer in the U.S. that can print a two-color hardcover book. If we were doing it in four-color, we could have printed it in the U.S. We were prepared to make any other sacrifice in terms of the materials but they wouldn’t even wash the press to do a two Pantone color book. It’s really not a big deal to print a two-color book, yet NOWHERE in the U.S. could do it. It blows my mind.
So this was printed in China. But we were able to get paper sourced and certified so that printing the book was done in an environmentally sustainable way, because look: California is burning down. This shit is real. Let’s not fuck around. And I didn’t want to be a part of cutting old growth to make paper. So those certifications were as good as we could do.
You’re a screen printer in addition to being a cartoonist. How do those two worlds bleed into each other?
I didn’t know many cartoonists at all until I moved to Massachusetts. I started screen printing in 1996. I kind of cobbled it together from instructions on the Speedball screens that you buy. And then I started selling issues of [the comics anthology] NON as I traveled across the country, and one person who bought some copies was Tom Devlin at Million Year Picnic in Cambridge. After living there a little while I published the third issue of NON, and Brian Ralph saw it and invited me to come to Fort Thunder and screen print. He showed me the really straightforward ways to do it. And so I met him, and Ron Regé, Megan Kelso, and all these cartoonists in Massachusetts.
Whose work has influenced your style the most?
The dots for eyes… there was an old kids' book cover, those [Big Little] Books that I remember seeing on an eBay listing. I don’t even know if I have it. But I was like, oh, you can just do that? It looked really straightforward and seemed like you could do a lot with it, so I was like, let’s try that! And then who I wanted to draw like… it’s a combination of Hergé, Hokusai, Jaime [Hernandez], Moebius, [David] Mazzucchelli, Geof Darrow, and [Katsuhiro] Ōtomo. It was all the clean line and epic vistas. And then I started realizing that Jaime used a lot of black, and how good black was. And then I found José Muñoz and Mazzucchelli, and then it became a clean line but inflected by putting as much black on the page as I possibly can. Like, fill it up with black but still show what’s going on. Black ink grounds a page. It all tells the big picture of being able to see less, but still something in the dark. And then trying to use shadows in a way that heightens the feeling of a particular thing, it doesn’t need to be real so much as it needs to feel real. Influence the emotional tone of the drawing. And then, the way it fits together narratively, there’s the writers of books, and that list is really endless... the big influences are from mostly poets. Mary Oliver, Leslie Marmon Silko, Joy Harjo, Jim Harrison, Donald Hall, it’s a list that is always changing and growing and no matter who is on it [it's] still missing important people.
Since you’ve been involved in independent comics for so long, I’d like to know if you’ve seen any shifts in this world of comics and how you anticipate Keeping Two fitting in.
I think there’s whatever place in the world for it as it’s ever had. I didn’t draw the story with any eye toward how it fit into the world, and anyway, after 2002 and then again after 2005, when my kids were born and in this world and requiring my attention, I wasn’t available to give as much attention to the world of comics as I had before.
The largest and most beautiful shift I’ve seen is the number of women doing comics, like when I first started the only woman of my peers I was really aware of was Megan Kelso, and then Gabrielle Bell came a little later. And like I said, after I stopped doing NON I wasn’t paying as much attention. But by about 2010 it seemed like all of the best new indie comics, women were doing them. And they were head and shoulders above what the guys were doing. Just really taking the language and images of what comics could be much further into new territory.
Honestly I’m a terrible person to ask because most of the time I’m just drawing my comics. I’m kind of at that point where I’m not looking around at others asking what am I gonna draw like, how do I say this? Around the beginning of my first 10 years of drawing comics I was looking around wondering what I could take to use for my own work, and I don’t know if that ever really worked but I was hoping it would. Like, ah, I saw the right thing and now I can finally draw comics. After a while I wasn’t looking outside so much, I spent more time just doing it. Trying to see the kind of story that I want to bring into this world, not looking for it in other comics but in the world itself. That resulted in me being more outside the comics world, not as aware of what’s going on in there.
You’ve had a lot of life changes between the start of Keeping Two and now.
Yes. Rebecca and I got married in 2001. When the first mini with Keeping Two came out we didn’t have children. Now we have two teenagers verging on moving out of their teens. I was in my late 20s then, and I’m almost 50 now. It’s been a little while. No matter what I was working on, I could always come back to Keeping Two, it felt good that there was never any rush to finish it. By having more time to reflect on the story, more things happened and I had more things I could do with it, more things to bundle in there.
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Special thanks to Steve Weissman and Jaime Hernandez.