I’ve known Ted Stearn for about thirty-five years. He was studying at the Rhode Island School of Design when my future wife Richmond Lewis and I were also there, and we all became good friends in the years thereafter. I was so intrigued with the paintings, drawings, and sculptures he made over the years—particularly a series of “automatic drawings” that were devised from random mark-making—that I suggested he make a comic for Rubber Blanket, the magazine I was publishing in the early 1990s. Ted took the challenge so seriously that he is still making comics today—damn good ones, too.
His latest book, The Moolah Tree, is the third installment in a saga that began in Fuzz and Pluck (1999) and continued in Splitsville (2008). Fuzz, a rejected, perennially abused teddy bear with no self-confidence, and Pluck, a poultry-slaughterhouse escapee with self-confidence in (over)abundance, are unlikely companions trying to survive in a world of users, losers, and desperate seekers (not unlike our own).
In this conversation we talk about many of the ideas that power his work, and also touch on his careers as a teacher and storyboard artist. I encourage you to visit tedstearn.com to see more of his work than can be shown here. He remains one of my favorite people and one of my favorite artists.
— David Mazzucchelli
THE SMELL OF PAINT
DM: You and I had similar trajectories in art school. We both started off majoring in illustration and then switched into painting. Knowing your work over all these years since that time, and thinking about the things that you wanted to make when you came out of school, I’m curious why you went into Illustration in the first place.
TS: I was paranoid about work and how I was going to get it, and I thought that fine art was too...fluffy. And I remember I called up my parents—I’m sure a lot of readers can relate to this—I called up my parents, it was three months after being in Illustration, and I said “I don’t know what to do”—I was, like, crying—“I don’t know what to do, I—I can’t do this, I don’t like it, I hate the teachers, and stuff’s stupid, uhh....” And I actually said “I wanna go into Painting, but I don’t know,” you know, it’s just too—you just don’t do that, it’s too...impractical. So, they were so sweet, they said “Do what makes you happy. Just go ahead and do it.” And I remember my first tour of the Painting Department and I just felt like “Oh, I belong here. This is great. I like this.” Because everyone was just really into it. I liked the smell, and the freedom... and the Illustration Department, I think you would agree, had serious problems back then.
DM: Well, regardless of problems it may or may not have had, it didn’t turn out to be the place for me either.
TS: What was the reason for that, for you?
DM: I think I didn’t know what illustration was, and I was trying to make what I thought art was, even though in the back of my mind I think I always knew I wanted to make comics. But I was trying to make drawings and paintings, and when I switched out of that department, it became immediately clear to me what illustration was—you’re given a problem and you solve it.
TS: I feel like something can be compartmentalized as illustration and not art when the subject is more important than the actual work. You know what I mean? That’s its job. If it goes beyond that, and it becomes a world within itself, and it becomes this really interesting, complex, other thing, then...you can call it “art,” I guess.
DM: With a capital A. What occurred to me was, I embraced ambiguity. In art ambiguity is a good thing, in illustration it’s not necessarily a good thing.
TS: I remember something you said in the studio. You said “You know, now I get it! It’s like the Talking Heads—stop making sense!”
TS: You remember saying that?
DM: I do.
TS: Well, it stuck with me, I was like, “Yeah, sure, definitely.” I mean, one of my favorite things about art-making is you have to break rules. I never liked sense too much.
AN IMAGINATION ARCHIVE
DM: (Sifting through books and papers) I’m sitting here going through, like, thirty years of your stuff, and it’s really interesting to see the connections between drawings and paintings you were doing about thirty years ago—
TS: (laughing) Thirty years! That’s crazy.
DM: Well, that’s the late eighties, right?
TS: Eighties, yeah.
DM: It’s interesting, ’cause I remember a lot of those paintings very distinctly—
DM: Yes, very clearly. Well, pretty clearly—
TS: You know, Richmond was an inspiration for me. She really was.
DM: Oh, yeah?
TS: Yeah. I mean, I didn’t want to paint like Richmond, but I remember I would go in your apartment and you would have all the Daredevil stuff out, and I was like “Okay, looks good! I want to see Richmond’s paintings, though!” (laughs)
DM: Her stuff was out too, as I recall.
TS: Yeah, well I kinda went “Oh, David, that’s really cool, you’re an incredible draftsman—let’s go see the paintings, now.”
DM: Smart move. Some of the imagery in the paintings you were doing back then found its way into the first comics you were making. The “Beach Boy” comic for example [published in Rubber Blanket No. 1]—there was a lot of Coney Island imagery and boardwalk scenes in your paintings before that.
TS: Right. Well, that was the first comic I did for you, and that was definitely pulling from my obsession with the Jersey Shore (laughs)—before it was a TV show!
DM: And where did that come from—that obsession?
TS: Um, I don’t know. I think I saw a lot of aesthetic stuff that I was really excited about, and so I wanted to reinterpret it as, not a cacophony, but a whole orchestration of shapes and colors and busyness and—
DM: You mean the combination of signs and different typography and different-shaped buildings and things all crammed together, that kind of accumulation?
TS: Yeah, I think it reflects in the comic maybe a little bit? Just how disorienting, if you walk through a boardwalk area? I was very intrigued by that, and I was also intrigued because it’s right next to nature—beach, ocean, complete nature—and then you’ve got this, you know, orgy of the follies of civilization or something. Also, I grew up in that kind of environment—we would always go to the beach in the summer, and as a kid I loved the boardwalk, the ocean, the whole scene. So it had a lot of personal resonance with me in hindsight, and the whole craziness of the boardwalk made me think about that contrast.
DM: There was another painting of the huge orange with human legs—
TS: (Laughs, shakes head)
DM: —that became Sourpuss in the Fuzz and Pluck comics.
TS: Yeah. (Shakes head) I don’t know why, I really don’t. I think it’s best not to analyze too much....
DM: The reason I’m bringing it up is that in the drawings that came a little bit later, the ones you call “automatic drawings,” there’s also an animated quality to shapes, so that seemingly random or casual marks get turned into living creatures by the addition of arms or legs or something like that.
TS: All those images that I was creating was kind of like building...an imagination archive that I could pull from.
DM: Those automatic drawings are what made me ask you to make comics for Rubber Blanket. Those and the paintings. There were characters and a sense of place and a sense of “something’s going on”—I thought “this guy can make interesting comics.”
TS: I just couldn’t believe how hard creating a comic was.
TS: So hard. And yet I really wanted it. It took me years and years and years. And some kids just have it and they go ahead and do it. But if you hadn’t asked me...I don’t think I would have done it.
DM: Sorry about that.
SCULPTURE TAKES UP SPACE
DM: Do you see a connection between the work you’ve ended up doing in animation as a storyboard artist and the way you were thinking when you were making kinetic sculptures?
TS: Uh.... (Pause) No.
DM: (Laughs) Okay.
TS: Well, they require different approaches, to me. But I will say, one reason I got into comics, one reason I was making those sculptures, one reason that I’m pretty natural at storyboarding is I have this fourth dimension of time. I mean, all works of art technically would have the dimension of time, but this is like really kind of exploding it in a past and future direction. So, the sculpture is less about movement and more about introducing the element of time. That became very interesting to me, and that’s why I enjoyed all that more than, say, just doing a painting, an image—that became really limiting to me, even though I loved it and I would go back to it easily, but...I felt like I was in a box. I didn’t want to be in that box, I wanted to create worlds and places that kind of just expand as much as I can. There are a lot of influences—music is a big influence on me. In the early nineties I was doing paintings and drawings, but I felt stuck, so I started making drawings that were all over the wall, and then I started building things, making three-dimensional drawings, as it were, and it kind of took off from there.
TS: You know, Jonathan Borofsky was a big influence on me. I remember seeing his work in 1982, we did a field trip to New York from RISD, and he just blew me away. I was just like, “This is just play, this is just so much fun.” And he had some kinetic sculptures in there.
DM: I remember the “Chattering Men.”
TS: Yeah...(makes hammering motion) the “Hammering Man.”
(Note: there were both.)
TS: But it was the overall-ness of it, it was just like...this huge sculpture here, this painting of a dream leaning against the wall over here—I loved that freedom, the turning yourself inside out. I loved just being able to, uh, not be disciplined about what you’re going to make and just sit down and start making something and see what you come up with. So this was a frontier for me, to build things and construct things, as opposed to sitting and drawing on paper. It was a very different experience. So I’m a really big believer in getting outside of your medium.
A video of Stearn's 1992 installations.
DM: Interestingly, after that expansion of grad school, by going into comics you did end up drawing on paper.
TS: I know, can you believe it?? Yeah.
DM: But long before you were making comics you were thinking about characters and settings and worlds and creating these environments and I think it really shows right from the first comics you made that there was this sense of world-building, or atmosphere—
TS: (Nods vigorously) That’s really good, I hadn’t really thought about that a lot, but I think that’s true, and I think the artists and the authors who I admire the most are able to do that. They did reflect on the real world, but they created their own—like, Basquiat did that, and, I don’t know, Goya did that, Charles Burchfield, and a lot of other artists that I admire. They weren’t married to “reality”—you know, so many artists recreating the world in their own vision. That’s what I appreciate about a lot of artists and I guess that’s what I was trying to do, though I don’t think I thought about it consciously, whether it was the sculpture or the paintings or the automatic drawings or the comics...
DM: And Halloween costumes.
TS: Which one was that?
DM: You were always coming up with interesting Halloween costumes.
TS: (Laughing) I don’t remem—
DM: I remember one in particular that cracked me up, it was a shirt with like twenty-foot-long sleeves and your hands were just dragging behind you—
TS: (Laughs) I had rubber gloves at the end. And one was the seven plagues of Egypt— (touching his chest in different places) I just stuck things on me.
DM: Richmond remembers you did (miming a large shape around his head) a big head, a big bear head or something—
TS: I did. I did a Fuzz head, yeah.
DM: That was after you had made Fuzz and Pluck?
TS: Of course, yeah. What happened to those days? We used to construct things.
DM: Now we don’t have room to keep them.
TS: (Laughs) That’s true. That was a big element in why I gave up doing sculpture—even though they were meant to be disassembled, I still didn’t have space to put it anywhere.
DM: When you were in grad school, you read the book Gödel, Escher, Bach, and I think that had an influence on some of your thinking in terms of connecting dots between different things...
TS: Actually I couldn’t get through it all, but the concepts were fascinating, linking music, math, and art. If you look at my background, my father was a chess player, he played chess almost every night, with himself or with a computer. And he was a big influence on my thinking. He was a computer programmer, and he was also always debating with us. He would take a devil’s advocate view of something and he would argue with us about, for example, whether the moon landing ever took place. Anyway, he had that book, and when I was about twenty-one I was like, “Oh, what the hell is this? Who cares?” And then later I picked it up again—but it wasn’t just that book, he also had The Annotated Alice, which is about the things that are really going on in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, as well as Gödel, Escher, Bach. I was also tying in Zen Buddhism, which was about similar either/or conundrums. A lot of it had to do with math and a lot of it had to do with logic and a lot of it had to do with paradox, and how a paradox is almost impossible and yet it is possible—(laughs) there’s a paradox in itself. So, that really fascinated me because I really wanted to investigate just how elusive truth is. That was definitely injected into all my work. Like if you think about the automatic drawings—that’s when I just sat there and drew whatever came into my head—to me that’s the nonsense, the non-sense, it’s anti-sense.
DM: Lewis Carroll is sort of the intersection of logic and nonsense.
TS: Well, that’s what I realized. Alice is not a real girl, she has nothing to do with being a little girl, really. She’s logic. She’s reason in a world that is nonsense and she’s trying to make sense out of nonsense, and the nonsense is telling her, “No, you’re the one who’s nonsense. This is sense.” So everything is turned on its head. So I’m always thinking about, in terms of stories and characters, how can we turn things on their head and make the reader go “Oh, I thought this was gonna be an easy answer, and it’s not.” I have fun playing with that idea—where we think that the right answer or the moral issue or the character’s correct motivation is all based on this very clear line, and I really want to throw a wrench into it as much as possible.
DM: In the new book, The Moolah Tree, at one point the vagabond character makes a comment on what’s going on around him—he says “Boy, everybody is looking for something.” And everybody is looking for something, and practically all the characters find something but it isn’t the thing they were looking for.
TS: (laughs) Yeah, I think one reviewer put it pretty well how I was thinking, he said, “He’s teasing with the idea of ‘money doesn’t buy happiness,’ but he never pulls it out completely in this grand cliché,” and I’m like, “Yes, that’s what I’m saying! I’m saying, I don’t know, maybe we do need it. Maybe we don’t—I don’t know.” But this is how people are dealing with it, and that’s the fun part.
As soon as something becomes a pat answer—and this is in life, too—I have big problems with it, because it never is. I’ve changed my mind about a lot of issues, I’ve changed my perspective on love and life and family and all these things, and so if it’s written in stone, I’m there with my sandblaster. Because our perception of the past is always changing, people are incredibly fickle.... I think there are certain universal truths, but I’m sure not going to tell the reader what they are. To me it’s a conversation. The reader is putting their thoughts in my work and I am throwing out ideas, and I’m saying how about this? So, the reader has to do a little reflection...the reader has to come to a conclusion—which people love, you know, they like that closure. I try to add closure but...with a question mark.
SIDEWAYS INTO COMICS
DM: You came to comics kind of sideways, but you weren’t unaware of comics—you were not a comic book reader the way a lot of people who get into comics are, but certainly you had an affinity for the form. If I’m not mistaken you had a cat named after Ernie Bushmiller—
DM: —before you were making comics yourself.
TS: I was always interested in comics. My grandfather was a dentist, so we would go to his waiting room and he would have all these Richie Rich and Little Dot comics—I really liked those kind of things—and Donald Duck...I liked the funny ones. Superheroes, I read them but they weren’t a big influence on me.
DM: They weren’t funny.
TS: Yes, you’re right! After I grew out of that, I was like, “I’m a peinteur, I don’t look at comics”—(quickly smiling) no, I’m kidding, I wasn’t like that. I kind of rediscovered them later. I especially liked—now it’s almost cliché—I looked at RAW, and RAW was a big influence in my understanding what comics could be. I also discovered “Little Nemo.” That was really gorgeous stuff—I’d never seen it before, until like 1988 or something.
TS: Yes. It was when you asked me to draw a comic, and I thought, “Well I definitely have to give this a try, ’cause I’ve been looking at all this stuff and I find it very interesting.”
DM: But there was also an interest in cartoons, you know, Betty Boop...
TS: Yeah...I guess I always had an interest in comics and animation, and if you look at the paintings, they’re pretty cartoony in a way—when I say cartoony, I mean, I feel like I had an attraction to bold images, something that’s almost iconic, bright colors...I guess we have to define “cartoony!”
DM: That’s why I was talking about these shapes in your drawings with an animating quality to them—these invented characters.
TS: It’s the old trope of marrying popular culture and art, I guess. But it’s so common now. I see it everywhere, I see it in art, I see it in...what do you call it, anthropomorphizing...all these animated cartoons on TV—cartoons just seem so much more pervasive now. Back then, I wanted to really marry cartooniness with traditional art forms, and today we would say “big deal, what’s new about that?” But back then, back in the early eighties, I thought it was kind of an intriguing idea. I wanted to not be precious and artsy, I really dislike that. That’s one reason I got into comics, I guess. I felt like the art world that I had come to understand was this whole game, and there was a lot of money in it and that kind of tainted it, and the thing I liked about comics was: one, there’s no money in it—
TS: —and two, it felt like a frontier, I felt like, “Oh, look at the possibilities!” Now it’s totally different.
DM: Sure. Things have really changed.
TS: When I came up with Fuzz and Pluck, I was thinking of an anti-hero, a paradoxical hero, or something that kind of answers the cutesiness of Disney in the seventies and eighties, and that’s what I was used to. But now I feel like the meaning is kind of lost because [cutesy Disney animals] isn’t really the culture right now. I wanted to do something that was anti-mainstream culture and now I feel like a conservative in some ways—which is scary enough for me—but I don’t feel like I’m on the frontier of anything right now. That makes me confused as an artist. I’m not sure what my next step is.
FEAR = HUMOR
DM: Before you were making comics did you have an interest in telling stories?
TS: No! I’m a terrible storyteller.
DM: I’ll disagree with that.
TS: Well, it’s a lot of work for me. It’s not something that comes naturally. The way I construct a story is just taking different elements and putting them together. I want to keep playing with the reader’s expectations, not just of the plot but of the actual storytelling—and that’s really tricky (laughs). Because a story is built on certain clichés that we’ve built up over the ages—
DM: Let’s call them “conventions.”
TS: Yeah, that’s better—and I became especially exposed to these because I was working in animation where we come up with certain conventions to explain quickly—as in, “Okay, we’re gonna have a scary shot! Okay, we’re gonna look up at the door, annnd the character’s gonna come in and open the door and it’s gonna be a low angle shot and the lighting’s going to be behind him...” These kind of shots that we had to come up with, and they still come up with over and over again, they just got me thinking a lot about how much I despise (laughs), how much I despise clichés because they don’t really come from a genuine place anymore. They’re xeroxes of xeroxes. We don’t realize how conditioned we are to act and react, like, “Okay, this is gonna happen next...” So I see it a lot. “Go close up to show them looking. Don’t show what they’re looking at yet.” And then my favorite is “waking up from a bad dream.” (Leaning back in his chair) There they are in bed having a bad dream, they wake up, (jolts forward) they do a sit-up! Like who ever does a sit-up waking up?
DM: People do it all the time—I’ve seen it in the movies!
TS: Exactly! So, this kind of lack of originality, um, it’s partially laziness, partially habit, because it “works.” And I think that’s based on fear, we’re afraid to go outside of a certain convention, because we don’t really know, it’s uncharted territory. So, when I’m thinking of a story, usually the first idea is gonna be pretty cliché, so I have to go beyond that and that’s the scary part, because it’s like, “I don’t know what’s gonna happen if I try this. Will it work?” Whereas, as you know, the cliché will “work” in the conventional sense.
You know the farting donkey [in The Moolah Tree]—
DM: The flonkey.
TS: —the flonkey—I had a dream. I kept picturing Fuzz and Pluck on a Pegasus, like a flying horse. And I was thinking, “I’ll be damned if I’m gonna do a flying horse, Pegasus, no way, I can’t do it.” So I tried to think of things that will serve the same purpose but will be a surprise, will be funny, will be more interesting than the same old thing. That’s what I do with almost all my characters, like the pirates—they’re never called pirates, they’re not dressed like seventeenth-century swashbucklers or something, that’s, aaugh, I could never do that. Anyway, I had a dream about riding a horse with flowers all over it. And I thought, this is really interesting, and so I built the backstory about the flonkey based on that dream and the idea that I wanted a flying horse. Of course, I didn’t want her to just fly—
DM: She had to be propelled somehow.
TS: Yes, we don’t give that away! So that’s how I’m constructing these things, I’m trying to do something that’s never been seen before.
DM: It’s interesting that that’s something you dreamed, because some of the most harrowing moments in the Fuzz and Pluck stories are dream sequences, or hallucinations, and they really take the reader into a much darker place. You also made a few short comics called “The Forgotten Dream of a Melancholy Chef,” and the logic in those comics is definitely a kind of dream logic.
TS: Well, usually I don’t remember my dreams. I would stress this to anyone who’s an artist out there: stop thinking about the subject, and think about the feeling you want the reader to get. Many dreams happen to have that dimension. The fact that it’s a dream or not a dream doesn’t matter, but the effect that I wanted in those cases—I was expressing something and I wanted a certain emotional quality. That was my aim, it wasn’t so much what it’s “about,” that was all secondary. There’s fear and uncertainty in them, but to me... I know what you mean about the dark side and stuff like that, but to me it has to be funny as well.
DM: Absolutely—and they are.
TS: Well, I don’t know. But to me, the absurdism of whatever I’m doing and the feeling that I want to get, it kind of reflects how I see the world, ’cause I think everything in this world is weird and funny.
TS: I don’t understand books and stories that don’t have any funny in them, I mean... the world is so absurd and funny to me! I can’t take those comics to an even darker place and have something truly horrible happen, ’cause I see it as the intersection of funny and scary. In 1991, I guess, when I was in my studio, I put a sign up that said “Fear and Humor are Synonyms.” I want it to be creepy and I want it to be funny and I think that’s a paradox within itself. Because if you just go creepy it’s just sad and you wanna take an antidepressant, and that’s not really my point. And if it’s just funny then it’s goofy, silly, weird for the sake of weird—that’s not where I want to go either. I like a little bit of both, I think it makes a nice balance.
DM: The first “Melancholy Chef” comic, which is one of my favorites, where the chef is cold and hungry—even though there’s food right in front of him—and this woman comes out of the sky and says “I’ll take care of you,” and then on the second page there’s this boxer defending him, saying “I’ve handled worse than this” as we see that woman leading a giant toward him—that is the perfect combination of fearful, funny, absurd. But the dream in Splitsville that Fuzz has of sawing up the ferryman—that one is a little less funny.
TS: (Laughing) Yeah. Actually I did think it ended up funny, the way he ends up all cut up, his legs are sticking up...
DM: You’re right, the drawings are painfully funny.
TS: I guess I mean more subtle, coming up with images that are for whatever reason humorous or odd and not dark and heavy. I’m not into dark and heavy. One reason that I started doing comics in the first place is I really couldn’t find what I liked, I couldn’t find that unique feeling that I want the reader to get.
FUZZ & PLUCK
DM: In Splitsville it’s explained that Fuzz and Pluck have ended up together by an accident of circumstance, but then you separate them.
TS: Because you can find out who a character is. A character is primarily a character when they are interacting with another character.
DM: They are of course brought back together by the end of that story, and that tells us why they’re together at the start of The Moolah Tree. But, Fuzz and Pluck are together pretty much because they’re together, right? They don’t have any necessary reason to be together...
TS: Yes. I love it when I read a review and it says, “These two friends, they’re best friends,” and they’re not friends. They’re not. For Fuzz it’s kind of a parental thing: he needs Pluck because he can’t see what to do. He’s not sure, he’s very fuzzy about a lot of things. And Pluck needs Fuzz...as a moral compass, in a way. Well, not so much a moral compass, but to balance his selfishness and “I’m number one” kind of survival mode. But they definitely are the crux of all the ideas I was talking about before. They kind of need each other, but not just because they’re nice. To me that doesn’t work, I think we all kind of use each other. If you read all three books, Pluck is always trying to get away from Fuzz.
DM: He is, and yet he somehow can’t.
DM: And yet he seems to in a certain sense accept his role—
DM: —a little bit—
TS: Yeah, he needs someone to boss around. Fuzz is perfect for that. I mean, it’s not a new formula. It’s Gilligan and the Skipper...
DM: They’re co-dependent!
TS: ...it’s Laurel and Hardy, especially. And I wasn’t even really thinking about them, but...the only difference I would say really is that Laurel and Hardy actually call themselves friends. I haven’t gotten that far yet. I feel like it would just ruin everything if I did that, it’s just not working for me.
DM: No, there has to be this strange...
THE WORLD OF FUZZ AND PLUCK
DM: There are a lot of what looks like hand-made vehicles and machinery in Fuzz and Pluck’s world. There’s a low-tech quality—I don’t think there’s any technology after like 1970—
TS: (Laughs) Well, I would say that after 1970, many people didn’t understand technology—I mean, they knew what it was, but they didn’t know exactly how it worked.
DM: From your drawings, it looks like you can really understand the technology, and how to fix the thing (both laugh), just from being the reader of the comic.
TS: Part of the influence was making those sculptures. I’m thinking, okay, so-and-so needs this kind of instrument—it’s almost like I’m in my studio building that instrument for them. And it also reflects on my conscious idea of not referencing the outside world as much as possible. It’s almost like they’re in this place that has certain things that work certain ways, no computers, nothing too complicated, because I think the reader actually can relate to it better. I don’t want to reference any company or current event or anything that would make it part of our world.
DM: Also [in Fuzz and Pluck’s world], animals and toys can speak and move as humans do, until the most recent book. Fuzz and Pluck are the only characters who are not human who act like humans. In the previous one, Splitsville, there’s a cast of animal characters, and toy characters, who interact with each other and with humans, and in more cases than not, seem to be in service roles...
TS: Well, I think that’s consistent—animals and whoever’s not human are subservient to humans, and so I kept that. As for the flonkey—she just doesn’t speak English.
DM: (Laughs) But there’s another dog in the comic that just acts like a dog. He’s only in a couple of panels. Was that a conscious decision?
TS: No, I remember putting that in and I thought, “Oh, this kind of breaks my whole—“ Which dog is this?
DM: Just in the background of a scene—
TS: He’s pooping on one of the bills and then walking around. I saw that and I thought this doesn’t really break the rule because...he could talk—
DM: (Laughs) He could, he has nothing to say.
TS: Right! He’s just walking on all fours. No problem there. But that’s very much a part of the world, there’s a subservience going on. I think we feel that way as children, so I’m kind of relating to the child in me. You don’t have your freedom, you have to work for it (laughs) and you have to answer to other people, (shrugs) stuff like that.
DM: In Splitsville you’re very explicit about that with the whole gladiatorial combat thing, which I’m tempted to read as a metaphor for the freelancer’s life.
TS: It’s definitely a metaphor, but I don’t want people to get the idea that I’m telling them this is what it’s about—
DM: Certainly, it could be read as more than just that.
TS: —but basically it’s from working in an animation studio. We all had to work together as a group, and yet we were all competing for the next job. There’s a paradox. So, that’s one issue from my life that I brought in. It has to do with being a freelancer—you’re constantly looking for the next job and you have to be nice and you have to jockey up...uuughh. I’m still doing it. And also, I wanted to show some gladiators, I liked that with some cute little animals.
DM: Well, you draw good animal violence. And when you think about the history of comics—
TS: Well, you did a lot of violence.
DM: I did lots of violence, but the violence I drew was more...bare-knuckled.
TS: Very elegant.
DM: (Wincing) Well...it started off being a kind of...abstracted sense of violence that is more like showing bodies moving at angles across panels, and it turned into more of—
TS: I think of it almost as looking at a choreography of dancing.
DM: But the later stuff that I did turned into drawings of people really slamming their knuckles into other people’s bones. What I’m talking about in yours is a kind of history in comics of people bonking each other over the head with big mallets, that kind of—
TS: It’s called slapstick.
DM: —slapstick, exactly. It’s hilarious.
THE MOOLAH TREE
DM: When you came up with this story, were you thinking more about what you wanted the characters to go through or where you wanted to send them, or were you thinking about what kinds of events would be interesting, or were you thinking about “what kind of things do I want to draw?” Or all of the above?
TS: In all the stories I think about what would be fun to draw, and what—nobody else, just me—what would really be fun to sit and look at and read. So, I think of certain scenarios, really generally, and I came up with this one because I was having a lot of trouble getting work, and I was bleeding money, and, uh, I was kind of scared and nervous, like the characters are. And there was the whole housing crisis—I was actually looking for a house just while the whole thing was crashing (laughs). So I think I wanted to take the idea of economic insecurity and have a fresh take on it. I didn’t want to do something that was too “real” or too dark and sad, I just wanted to play with that desperation that I felt at the time...and I still do, now and then, when I’m unemployed.
Other things like “why pirates?” I think because I really like that lawless adventurer aspect, so I wanted to take that and make that something we’d never seen before. One of my favorite characters that I’ve created is the captain, Dunderhead. He’s pretty complex, he’s not simple. He’s not evil but he’s presented as a “bad guy,” but he’s not, really. He’s just desperate.
DM: He also has a bit of a sad story with a dog who doesn’t speak in this comic, but perhaps can. (Both laugh) You actually do talk about the housing collapse by having the three bankers who show up on Segways. That becomes one of the main lines of the story, that [the character] Despera is losing her house.
TS: Right. Well, it has to do with the theme of money. But every issue or storyline or plotline, they’re kind of McGuffins. What concerns me is how the characters react to issues, not so much what the issue is. And that’s really what’s fascinating to me about people, and how people are so blinded by their beliefs, and they feel strongly about certain things that aren’t true—which, you know, I’m number one guilty of that, but anyway the politics of how people relate to each other and how they relate to issues and problems and making decisions and figuring out who they are—that’s more interesting to me than the housing market. The housing thing is a McGuffin, it’s something they can dance around. The same thing with the money tree, the money tree is of course a symbol. But it’s how they react that I’m interested in, not so much “the issue of greed,” it’s how they deal with greed and selfishness and are they doing the right thing, are they doing the wrong thing? How are they acting? If I can have a very real character—and I don’t mean realistic, I mean a very well-rounded character—then we’re more invested in how they’re gonna act, we empathize with them more.
I was just thinking, one of my favorite comics of the nineties was Hate. I liked what Peter Bagge did. He always had really interesting, complex characters for comics, and it was funny, too. It’s kind of the same thing. I’ve become very interested in the personal politics. In fact my next book, it’s going to be more...it’s gonna have a lot of...personal politics in it (laughs).
DM: Your drawing is beautiful. How do you feel about the drawing and what you’re trying to do with it and what you’re trying to say with the way you depict the world that you’ve created?
TS: Well, I think there are some obvious influences. I like a lot of older comics, like from the turn of the [previous] century, and how they use pen and ink, that kind of thing. The drawing is really fun, because it’s like making music to me. It’s very important for every panel and every page and everything to balance and relate to each other.
A lot of people say “Why do you work in black and white?” I like the electric energy I get from the vibration. I remember I did one comic with some gray backgrounds. But for me, I don’t know, I wanted that vibration for my stories. I missed all the lines (laughs).
DM: All the lines come to the surface more equally in black and white.
TS: I don’t know why I prefer this way I’m drawing, ’cause it’s kind of time consuming, and I could do it much simpler, I could draw little lollypop trees in the background and—
DM: No no no.
TS: Okay, I won’t do that! I could simplify it drastically, but then the world that I’m creating becomes a little bit of a cardboard cutout. And what I love, always loved, is being able to enter into a place, like what you touched on earlier. “Krazy Kat” does that, you know, Herriman does it with...much more economy than I do. I’m like nnnhhh (knocking on his head), how does he do that?
DM: Me too.
TS: I remember reading Stendhal’s The Red and the Black...there are all these people pursuing things. That was an influence on [The Moolah Tree]. They were all in this beautiful Swiss landscape and it was described by the author, but they were oblivious to it. So that’s kind of what I was thinking: nature is beautiful to me, so I’m going to make just a gorgeous place, it’s beautiful and it’s complete but...everyone’s blind to it. For one panel Captain Dunderhead reflects on it, but then he’s back to his own selfish thing. So that is one aspect of how I approached drawing this particular comic. I really enjoyed drawing this comic, I hope it shows.
DM: Absolutely. It’s a real pleasure to go through page-by-page. You flip through this book and you want to read it.
TS: My mom started halfway and read it to the end, she said “I just kept turning the pages!” Well, she doesn’t read comics! (Imitating his mom) “I kept turning the pages, I wanted to get to the end.” I said, “That’s good but start at the beginning, not in the middle.”
HOW TO LOOK AT THINGS
TS: I want to contest one of these ideas that a comic panel should be drawn as fast as it’s looked at. There’s this other idea that you go to a museum and on average one artwork is only looked at for thirteen seconds, which implies we’re not looking long enough. That may be true, but I’m putting it in my memories. I walk away from it, I can remember it for years afterward.
DM: (In “teacher” mode) What you’re talking about is the idea that a comic is not an accumulation of single images that should be looked at equally; it is a flow of images, and so you don’t want the reader to slow down by stopping at each one, or stopping at an inappropriate one; so the drawings have to have a degree of—
TS: Yes, you’re right...
DM: I’m saying, this is the theory: that information has to be taken in quickly enough that you can go to the next panel, except where you want the reader to stop and stay for a while. Of course, no one complains that it takes a year to make a movie that you only watch for ninety minutes.
TS: Yeah, and I think that’s where the actual drawing becomes very much integral with the comic, you have to have it working as a read, and as a flow, definitely. Who did that, um, Laurence Sterne, I think—he just sticks this marbled page, or a squiggly line, and a few others, in the middle of the novel, for sometimes clear reasons, sometimes for mysterious reasons. So I want to put up a couple of dams and say, “Stop and look at this, then keep going.” I also like going back and contemplating, almost like a “Where’s Waldo” thing where you’re just looking at this whole world.
DM: You and I would probably agree that even something that looks simple is much more effective and much more beautiful when you can sense there’s an underlying structural thought given to it in order to place that thing right there.
TS: I try to do that. It’s all planned. Like your Asterios book—every time I go back and look at it I find something different or there’s something that I missed or, I know there are layers in there...so that’s what I’m interested in storywise and visually, and marrying it all together. When it’s successful all the aspects should be inseparable.
DM: How did teaching comics affect the way you thought about making comics? Or the way you thought about teaching?
TS: I taught comics and storyboarding from 2001 to 2004 at Savannah College of Art and Design. I enjoyed teaching immensely, it was never boring. I don’t think it affected my comics much, as I was pretty set on who I was as an artist and what I wanted. One thing I learned from teaching is I shouldn’t get specific about “good” quality and “bad” quality. For example, I don’t care for standard Manga style, but I never let that on, because, as in any style, there is really no applicable criteria to approach why it is or is not “good” quality. So one student was a fantastic Manga artist, not because she drew Manga or not, but because she had a great sense of design and following a narrative. Was it original? Not really, but that’s not really what she wanted. So I tried to develop a criticism technique that applied certain conditions to any style, such as composition, narrative flow, strong drawing, stuff like that. This allowed the student to improve, but kept the elusive “style” issue out of it. I also tried to stay neutral about general impressions of quality, like, “it works,” or “it’s beautiful,” or “it’s weak.” I insisted the students had to articulate why. Sometimes I forgot this myself and didn’t do this! But usually I did try to guide the students to think for themselves.
DM: Working as a storyboard artist, you get a script and some notes, and you have to follow that exactly. When you’re making your own comic, (shaking his head) you don’t write a script and then draw it?
TS: I do [write a script], I actually do. But I’m thinking about it, so I’ve kinda got the movie in my head. I do write it all out, and it’s almost backwards though, because I see the characters and what they’re doing and I know visually what’s going on, but I’ll just write it out ’cause—
DM: It’s quicker. Sometimes.
TS: Yeah, it’s quicker, I guess. I want that rhythm of words—that’s important. But storyboarding has helped me communicate visually more effectively. When I started doing storyboards I was unsure of how to communicate, how to express something—I think that’s just natural—but it was my job to communicate. We had to communicate something really succinctly and quickly and easily in a way that was really readable. At the same time, though, I definitely don’t want to be didactic at all [in my stories]. And I want to ask questions, I don’t want to give answers, I hate stories that give answers (laughs).
DM: They’re the worst. But you’re very conscious of “I’m gonna set it up so that when the readers get to this panel or this page or this sequence, they understand it in the way I want them to understand it.”
TS: Well, the way I want them to understand it is not one way. It’s kind of like you’re holding the reader’s hand and you’re taking them through a house and you walk into a room and I might see a lamp and a table and ten books, and they might see the dresser and the rug or something. When I’m taking them through, I definitely want them to come into that room but I don’t want to put blinders on them and say “You can only see it this way.” I guess that’s a kind of weak metaphor, but that’s what I’m trying to do, so there’s a balance between giving too much information, being too didactic, and then there’s the opposite problem, which is also common, where the reader really doesn’t know where we’re going. The reader at least needs to believe they’re going in a certain direction, or have some general idea, and when it’s just, you know, one sequence after another—it has to have tension. And I bring that up because I’m a big believer in visual tension, too. It’s Hans Hofmann’s favorite subject. He talks about how all great art must have tension, so I expand that in different directions: everything, even the compositions have to have tension, the character interactions have to have tension. And tension is opposites pulling at each other, or pushing at each other.
That’s just one aspect of what I want in a comic, or almost anything else in art. You have to be really honest with yourself and say “What do I really want to look at? What would really be fun to look at?”—not just draw, but to look at, and read. When I was teaching I always used to think about that. I’d say, in so many words, “We don’t even know it, but we’re so scared to find out who we really are and what we really want.” Because it’s reflected in the work. If the work is completely safe and it’s conventional and it’s got all the bells and whistles of convention, then you’re afraid of something, you’re not really facing who you are. So whenever I see myself going in that direction, going in this kind of safe place, I challenge myself, I think, “Sorry. Come up with something better.”