JB Roe is a cartoonist, illustrator, graphic designer, and podcaster. With a focus on small press work, Roe’s comics career to date has consisted of works in a variety of scope and scale. He has produced longer works like Daikaiju Team Alpha, with Erik S. Gutierrez, and Brainsbuster 2019, with collaborator James Henry Dufresne. He has also been a fairly prolific contributor to zines, minicomics, and anthologies, such as Sonic Heaven: A Sonic Fanzine, edited and published by Bonnie Guerra. He has also made impactful pin-up contributions in a variety of indie and mini-comic titles, such as Weed Priests and Space Riders. Outside of comics, Roe is co-owner and designer for Hardway, Ltd., a boutique streetwear brand with a focus on combat sports.
Roe co-hosts Gutter Boys, a podcast about the comics industry, with cartoonist Cam del Rosario. The show is a freewheeling affair, but generally finds the duo reacting to and opining upon industry news and gossip and interviewing indie and small press creators. Taken as a whole, the show is a refreshingly candid look at the industry and what it’s like to work in the most independent niche within it. Tonally, Gutter Boys skews to the online contingent of shitposters that eschew snark for more aggressive and direct criticism. The duo frequently find themselves at odds with an industry that is too often tone deaf and aggressively apolitical in its response to issues of social justice and they aren’t shy about making their feelings known, often humorously and not infrequently with Sopranos memes. They are equally passionate and articulate in discussing the craft of cartooning and nuances of small-press publishing. Drawing upon their circle of small press friends and acquaintances for interviews, the duo elicit similar responses from guests appearing on the podcast. Ian Thomas interviewed JB Roe in a series of emails in November of 2020.
Ian Thomas: How are you doing? I feel like listeners to Gutter Boys have been given glimpses, but how has your 2020 been overall?
JB Roe: All things considered, I'm doing fine. Prior to COVID, I was going out less and less and instead focusing on making comics and illustrations, so social distancing and self-quarantining weren't major hurdles. I do miss seeing friends, and I especially miss tabling at events since that was one of the few times I could socialize with comic friends and talk shop. Beyond that, I've been trying to be as productive as possible to make the most of what's going on right now as I'm sure most cartoonists are.
Can you talk about your background? Where were you born? Where did you grow up? Art-wise, have you had a lot of instruction/school?
I was born and raised in Lakeland, Florida and spent time in Gainesville and Tampa before moving to Chicago in 2012. I was lucky to have parents that supported my interest in art and let me take art courses as a kid. Eventually I got signed up for AP art classes in high school but wouldn't pursue an art major until my sophomore year of college.
What did that college instruction consist of?
The typical state college art program with a focus on conceptual art. My degree was Studio Art with a Drawing concentration. I had some very supportive professors, but the school was poorly funded. Florida, and most states for that matter, don't see any value in funding the arts.
When did comics enter the picture for you? What are your earliest memories of them? What were the first titles that excited you? I feel like, given your body of work, I should ask the same about TV shows, movies, etc.
I've always loved comics since I was very young. I would save up change and pick up comics at the 7-11 next to my mom's hair salon. My dad would get me old back issues from the flea market some weekends too, and those are still my favorites. Lots of Spider-Man, Deathlok, some Batman, and other random titles. I absolutely loved the stories and art in that initial 1991 run of Deathlok written by Dwayne McDuffie and Gregory Wright. Around that age we lived at an apartment complex that had cable, so I would stay up and watch horror movies like The Thing, The Fly, Scanners, Tales from the Crypt, and Halloween III: Season of the Witch and then watch Nick shows during the day. [I] loved Adventures of Pete & Pete, which still holds up, and some cartoons like Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, Rocko's Modern Life, and a few Fox Kids and WB shows like X-Men, Batman: The Animated Series, etc. Since I was born in the late '80s, I was a huge fan of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I watched the cartoons repeatedly and wore out the tape of the first movie from watching it so often. I also watched some wrestling here and there when I was able to.
Why do you think that Deathlok run resonated with you? I remember it having some horror elements, and some fever-dream type imagery.
The bizarre horror elements were why I was drawn to it. I mean it's about an undead cyborg super soldier! I thought the art was great and the stories were interesting enough to keep me engaged. If I had access to more, I probably would've been a huge Swamp Thing fan too, which didn't really happen until I was in college.
Did you find your way to the grittier, Mirage Studios TMNT comics?
I did not until much later in my life, which I think was typical for most people my age. They're great, and learning about those issues made me dive deeper into the black and white comics that came out in the '80s boom.
Along with the art direction, Real Monsters and those other Nick shows had bold and inventive color palettes. Looking at Daikaiju Team Alpha and your commission work, I get the impression that color holds equal consideration to the drawing. Is that the case? What informs your color choices?
Some of my color choices are informed by print comics from the silver and bronze era. I often use the same palettes that Kirby used in his pages. There's just something about those bright, unsubtle palettes that make things pop and seem larger-than-life. I also get a lot of inspiration from vintage toy packaging art. To be honest, I'm more of a line guy than a color guy, but since I'm self-publishing most of the time and generally would like to have full-color pages, I usually color all my stuff. I would, however, like to return to doing more black and white comics again. There's something visceral in my opinion when it comes to black and white pages, especially when compared to most modern coloring jobs.
When did you begin making art? What were those early efforts? How soon after were your first attempts at creating comics?
I was drawing at a very early age. It goes so far back I can't even remember my first drawing. I do remember drawing [Teenage Mutant Ninja] Turtles mostly, and would even copy images I found in magazines and books that I found interesting. My first comic wouldn't be made until I was around 10 or 11, thanks in part to a young instructor I had for a summer course. We're still friends to this day, and he makes comics as well. The comic was pretty janky, considering how young I was. It was about a kid who was given time traveling gadgets and a dinosaur as a sidekick.
When did you first start self-publishing?
I started self-publishing in 2015 when I was asked to table at C2E2. For that event, I made a mini comic called “DÖDA” (my first since that initial one as a kid) and two drawing zines. One was called “Figure Drawings” collecting some old abstract figures I did in college and the other was “Suplex Superstars,” which was an illustration zine of wrestlers from the '80s by my friends and myself.
I get the impression that you view your self-publication and small press efforts are vehicles for experimentation and maybe growth? What were your goals for, say, Daikaiju Team Alpha #2, your latest? How do those goals fit in with the overarching goals for your career?
Self-publishing and small press provides you the freedom to do whatever you want without restrictions or oversight. More importantly, it gives you a space to make mistakes and learn from them. I think every cartoonist should make zines, even if they're already being published. I can't really speak on goals per se as I don't really see things within that context. I just enjoy drawing and making things, and Erik at Really Easy Press is a great friend and an amazing artist, so getting to work with him on anything excited me, especially given the subject matter of the comic.
Daikaiju Team Alpha, along with many of your other recent works, was risograph printed. Can you talk about what you like about risograph work?
I enjoy riso because it has all the great features of machine printing (cheap, relatively quick and easy) but maintains a lot of the analog elements that are lost in the age of digital printing. The colors and the way they can work with each other on the paper are more similar to screen printing than anything else and nothing really exists that has all of those attributes. The only drawback is that it's impractical for large scale production, which is fine because I don't see the point in making 2,000 copies of something at this point in my life.
Where would you want to be at your level of craft to justify that kind of print run?
I think it's less about craft and more about demand at that point. If more people wanted my stuff, then an increased print run like that would be considered. Otherwise, it's just a waste of time and money.
I feel like the barometers for success would have to be different in the small press arena than they would be for an artist trying to break in to work for bigger publishers? What does a small press release have to do for you in order for you to consider it a success?
It depends on your definition of success. Personally, if a small press book is thoughtfully made, well drawn and written, and expresses something from the artist that cements their "voice," then I would call it a success. And if we're using that as the barometer, then I'd say most small press books are far more successful than the majority of books released by major publishers.
Do you feel that you are in the process of cementing your voice? Does that imply a consistency of style across projects?
Yes and no. I think the artist's voice comes through the work, meaning you have to make a lot and be consistent about it. I don't think consistency means sticking to the same style for every project as I find that boring and tedious. Instead, I think consistency just means making the work, keeping your nose to the ax grinder, and seeing what sticks.
You have a varied portfolio outside of comics. It includes design work, illustration, and photography, as well. Can you speak to whether you think there is a lot of overlap in your approach and in your aesthetic preferences across media?
That's hard to say. I haven't done any serious photography in a while, but I do still work in design and illustration. I'm sure some elements carry over across those mediums in terms of how I think about fundamental things like color and composition, but it’s difficult to pinpoint.
Is your time limited when it comes to pursuing creative endeavors? If so, how do you decide how to spend your time?
I don't know anyone who isn't limited by time to pursue their projects. I go in waves of productivity, but for the most part I try to work as much as I can every weekday and take weekends off for the sake of my own sanity.
How did Hardway come about? What is your involvement and what parallels can you draw, if any, between your approach to the graphic design in Hardway and your approach to comics?
I started designing and producing what can only be described as "fan" shirts in around 2016 due to the fact that the majority of the wrestling merchandise being sold at the time was awful and I wanted to wear wrestling-related apparel that wasn’t embarrassing to have on in public. A year later, I was approached by Joe Onimus, a friend of a friend in Florida, who was a big fan of my work and wanted to collaborate on a major project with me. After some talks, I pitched him the initial idea of what would become Hardway and we released our first limited pre-order in 2017 featuring designs made by me. As co-owner and lead designer, I can say it’s been very rewarding. I can’t find much in the way of parallels with my comics and Hardway other than maybe some minor compositional choices, but I’m sure a smarter and more eloquent person could do a better job of pointing those out. I just try to make things “click” for me personally.
What reference points are you drawing upon in the graphic design in your Hardway work? Is there a visual tradition around wrestling apparel?
Initially my inspiration was drawing from band shirts, but that eventually moved towards vintage sports apparel from the '80s and '90s like Nike's "Challenge Court" line of clothing, as well as bootleg tees being produced during that time. I collected sports cards when I was a kid and really loved a lot of the design choices featured in cards from those eras, so I also carried over some of those elements for inspiration. If there is a visual tradition around wrestling apparel, I'd argue it's almost always tied to the popular aesthetics and features of their own times. The only thing I can pinpoint is maybe effective simplicity, i.e. nWo or Austin 3:16. Those shirts sold by the millions and we still see them today.
Can you talk about what you like about designing t-shirts? You seem to have done a lot of it. It seems like production would be more unforgiving than making comics.
Designing shirts is more forgiving than comics. You can play around with compositions and color palettes without worrying about managing multiple images and pages, keeping track of continuity, etc. It requires less thought than, say, plotting out and executing a 60-page book. There's something very gratifying when you settle on a design that you’re happy with and then getting to see it printed and in person, let alone seeing other people wearing them. With comics, you just get a pat on the back from your friends and hope people read it at some point.
In comics, do you tend to work digitally or on paper? Is this same with your illustration and graphic design work?
I started off working only on paper with some digital work for illustration and design. Over the years, I've moved more and more towards digital as I found it to be faster. I still draw on paper periodically and want to make another comic that way, but for now, doing things digitally saves me a bunch of time and money.
Looking at your portfolio, it seems like you're drawn to making your work as tactile, or maybe as physical, as possible. T-shirts, pins, stickers, even small run books seem particularly tactile. Is physical, as opposed to digital, kind of the end all and be all when it comes to making stuff?
As more things technologically progress, we're seeing the removal of the physical object from contemporary life. Movies, video games, music, books - practically all media that we consume is now in a cloud network. While this is convenient and saves space for some, I find it somewhat disheartening. Luckily, some things will never really make the full jump to digital, and those are the things I continue to produce because I love physical objects. Out of all the media to make the digital jump, comics seem to be the slowest to make that transition as they're tethered to a history of disposable print media, so I don't see physical print comics going anywhere anytime soon thankfully.
How did Gutter Boys come about? Did you have any specific goals in mind beyond talking to friends?
Gutter Boys was just a way to fill the hole that was left in between shows as it was something we weren't getting enough of. I was doing around four to five events a year before COVID. I think Cam did even less than that. We wanted to recreate that casual but opinionated back-and-forth we often had with each other and our circle of friends at those shows. We also felt there weren't enough podcasts that really talked about small press, self-publishing, let alone about process and perspectives from the creator's point of view as most comics podcasts were just about generic fandom relating to the big two which we had zero interest in doing.
You and your co-host, Cam del Rosario, are extremely candid about your opinions. Do you worry that this candidness will affect your professional prospects?
Not at all. If we worried about that sort of thing, we wouldn't do the show. If it did/does affect our professional prospects, that's fine. I think we'll live.
With regard to the podcast, was there a learning curve to doing interviews or do you feel like it comes pretty naturally? You seem pretty outgoing.
Before moving to Chicago, I was doing a lot of work as a writer for different music and culture magazines and websites for fun. Doing interviews was a fairly regular occurrence then, so maybe some of that carried over when Cam and myself started interviewing people for the podcast. I guess it's like riding a bike. You don't really forget how to engage with people about the things they're passionate about.
You talk a lot of shit about the industry and industry talent on the podcast. A lot of it seems to come down to critical tastes, but I'm also trying to narrow in on some constants. Two things that seem to consistently draw ire are creators who claim to be apolitical and creators who appropriate culture. Does this seem accurate?
We take issue with many things when it comes to the comics industry. The business models, the editorial teams, the cultural identity of comics that informs the general public; all of it needs an overhaul. Apolitical is usually just lazy code for centrist or conservative. To quote Howard Zinn, “you can't be neutral on a moving train.” I don't believe in "hiding" your views [from] the world around you for political or economic gain. It makes zero sense, and eventually you will get exposed.
You have been particularly vocal about criticizing Ed Piskor. Does this come down to his book, Hip-Hop Family Tree?
Ed is just a culture vulture that made a series of okay-drawn books that were just summarized Wikipedia articles about the history of Hip-Hop. I think people like him sometimes mix up consuming culture with participating in culture. I'm sure he's a huge fan of rap music (most people are), but I wouldn't take it upon myself to be the arbiter of a community's history that I was never really part of. It just seems weird to me. It makes it even more problematic when you're profiting off of it as well. Also, maybe don't put the n word in your dedication for your Hip-Hop book if you're a white guy! That's also pretty weird!
With regard to the dedication, are you referring to the “This is dedicated to the #!&&@$ that was down from day one” that preceded Hip-Hop Family Tree?
When you say "summarized wikipedia articles," I hear that as an implication of a lack of research or an insufficiency with regard to putting the people and events into historical context. Is this accurate? Where does consumption of culture end and participation in it begin?
Most Wikipedia articles are well researched. I just don't have any interest in reading a comic that illustrates something like that. The implication of my statement is that everyone else did the heavy lifting and he's the one that walked away with the book deal, but that's how things usually go. Participation implies just that: participation. What are his contributions to Hip-Hop culture exactly? Making a book about another culture's history that was made and written by others isn't participation in my opinion. To me that's just fetishization.
I seem to recall you criticizing the level of support for Black Lives Matter from the Cartoonist Kayfabe channel. Did you feel they should have said more, given Hip-Hop Family Tree?
If you're going to happily profit off of black culture, yes. Ed remained silent for weeks until he was called out about it on social media.
Do you consider yourself to be part of the cohort pulled to the far Left of the political spectrum in recent years by social media and podcasts?
Not really, because I've been a leftist since 2003. Watching a live broadcast of an invasion of a sovereign nation based on fabricated evidence and guided by war profiteers will do that to you.
Do you think that shitposting/irony-poisoned tone could be replicated or applied within the comics medium? Can you point to any work that you think captures it?
Shitposting is better left on social media because that’s where it’s most effective. Seeing it in a comic would be funny for a moment or two, but seeing it repeatedly across multiple titles would be extremely tacky and too cynical even for me. I can’t really point to any examples comics-wise, but I’m sure they’re out there.