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Monday, June 23, 2008

 
L. NicholsL. Nichols Interview -- I love it when a cartoonist's work enters my consciousness and refuses to fade away. That's what happened to me when I first discovered the work of folks like Jim Rugg, Jason Marcy and Paul Hornschemeier, and now it's happened again with Brooklyn's L. Nichols.

I reviewed Jumbly Junkery #4 last week, and kept thinking about Nichols' comics, both online and the one mini I had received in the mail. So I sent off some questions, and got back some fascinating and thoughtful responses. And here they are. Click on the images accompanying the interview to see bigger versions.

I'd never heard of your work before Jumbly Junkery #4 popped up in my mailbox. Tell me about your background and how you got interested in creating comics.

I've been drawing all my life, but I feel like I got to comics somewhat late in the game. I drew my first comic back in 2001, but I didn't really start drawing comics concertedly until 2004 (when I was 20, 21 years old). I was living in Cambridge, England at the time on the Cambridge-MIT Exchange and I was so miserable from the culture shock, lack of friends, and general drudgery of Cambridge University that I finally started filling up the long-empty sketchbook I had brought with me. This is where the ragdoll character originated, as well, actually...from those sketches and doodles. I had been drawing this character in various situations...like one panel comic-type-deals...and it dawned on me that I was drawing myself and using it as a way to deal with the stress of living abroad.

As for transitioning to drawing comics from just drawing characters/places/still life/etc...I think it was a combination of finally having broken down this idea I had in my head that comics were either funny or involved superheroes. I never was the superhero type (except for my childhood love of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), and I never thought of myself as someone who could consistently tell gags, so I just kind of wrote comics off as something I thought I shouldn't do. But in high school, my friends introduced me to things like Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and Sandman and then American Splendor came out a few years later and it finally hit me that comics were a medium in their own right and didn't have to involve humor or superheroes if I didn't want them to.

When I got back to MIT, I took a class called "Understanding Comics" taught by Henry Jenkins where I really started to appreciate and explore comics. The things I was introduced to in that class really shaped the way I grew as an artist. I still think it's funny that I went to school to be a mechanical engineer and came out really wanting to draw comics. I don't know that my parents find it so funny.

It surprises me to hear MIT had a course on comics -- can you tell me a little bit about what you learned?

People often have the misconception that MIT is this nerdy place only for math and science, but it's got an incredible humanities department as well. In fact, one of the writing professors, Junot Diaz, just won the Pulitzer Prize. The comics class I took was under the Comparative Media Studies program. The goal was to explore the various different ways in which comics can be used as a medium as well as examine the broader cultural history and social impact of the medium. At least, I think this was the goal. I was notoriously bad at actually showing up to class.

Poor attendance aside, I learned a lot in the class about the history of American comics...from early newspaper comics like Hogan's Alley and Little Nemo to stuff like Sandman, Watchmen, et cetera. It was a wonderful introduction to comics for me, particularly since I hadn't read many before taking this class. One of the classes/discussions that really sticks out in my memory is when we discussed Watchmen and how it really took the superhero genre and examined it in this new light. Like how the part where the guy has his hero costume hidden in the closet makes this play on the idea of an identity being closeted, et cetera.

More generally, we talked about how the CCA really changed things for horror comics and how the underground comics movement started. We talked about how newspaper rivalries influenced the development of color comics (the yellow kid in Hogan's Alley). We talked about fan culture, about appropriating things like Disney characters and making spoofs of them. I mean...we covered so much in the class! To this day, I have revelations in my own work that come out of something we discussed. I still kick myself a bit for not going to class more regularly.

What comics were you required to read for the course, and what did you get out of your exposure to them?

There was lots of reading for the course. I can't possibly remember everything we read, but some of them were various bits from Little Nemo and Hogan's Alley. It really blew me away seeing this older stuff, seeing how experimental they were back then. Marvels. Dark Knight Returns. Daredevil, the David Mack one. Watchmen. All of them interesting takes on the superhero genre. Made me really think about the genre and how you could use various preconceptions to play with the reader. The David Mack Daredevil book also got me thinking about how art could be changed and used in new ways in comics.

Sandman. I thought it was amazing how literary the medium could be! I still love reading these. Blankets by Craig Thompson. His use of framings in the book is lovely, as well as the brush work. Hippy Bitch and Bitchy Bitch by Roberta Gregory, various Tijuana bible type things. It was great seeing some of the old underground/alternative stuff. Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan really inspired me design-wise. Understanding Comics, of course! And Comics & Sequential Art by Eisner got me thinking about comics in a more theoretical sense.

Safe Area Gorazde by Joe Sacco and Hellboy by Mike Mignola really changed the way I thought about page layout in a formal way. Fables. Something about the idea of fables in the modern world just dragged me in.

Additionally, Henry was kind enough to let me borrow comics from his personal collection. It's kind of hard to separate what I read in class from what I read out of class, because it's all this big year-long blur of "oh man I can't believe I didn't discover this sooner because it's incredible. I have to read everything now!"

Particularly, I fell in love with independent/alternative comics. After I exhausted the limits of Henry's indie comics collection, I started spending way too much of my own money on books. I still spend way too much, but it never feels like enough. At least drawing comics is easier on my bank account.

I know from our email discussions that you have a day job -- how do you fit time to create comics into your schedule?

I am obsessive when it comes to drawing, so I try to figure out ways to use every bit of spare time I possibly have to draw. For example, I live in Brooklyn and take the subway to work in Manhattan. This translates to ~1.5-2hrs/day spent on the subway. When I can get a seat on the subway, I can usually manage to pencil most of a page on the way to work and pencil most of a second page on the way home. If I'm standing, things are a bit slower going, but I still usually try to sketch out my page layouts in whatever way I can figure out. Leaning against the doors or against a pole is a good way to have both of my hands free. Since most of my work is in my moleskine sketchbooks, this is convenient.

Otherwise, my wife is just very patient with me and is willing to put up with my consistent drawing habit. If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't be anywhere near as productive as I am. She works more hours than I do, which allows me to have my part-time job(s) and leaves me more time for drawing/making art than I would otherwise have.

Do your co-workers know you are a cartoonist? If so, what do they think about it?

Yeah, my co-workers know. I don't really hide the fact that I draw from anyone. I sometimes draw during my lunch break if I have something I really want to get down on paper in the few spare lunch minutes I have. Jumbly Junkery #4 also sat under my desk at work for a few days in a box after I got it back from the copy center. I had to carry it back to Brooklyn in three separate trips, so they watched me load up my backpack when I was leaving work. I think they all find it amusing that I draw cartoons and make comics.

Are there any cartoonists you would say have been an influence on your approach to comics?

Oh man. This is a hard question! Jhonen Vasquez's Johnny the Homicidal Maniac was the first cartoon that I remember really stuck with me and is what inspired my very first comic. A few years later, I discovered Daniel Clowes. His work really resonated with me at the time. I still love the way he tells stories. Chris Ware and Paul Hornschemeier's simple lines with their choices of colors really influenced the way I thought about color in comics. Mike Mignola's overall simplicity and use of ink made me start thinking differently about how ink can be used to shape a space. Joe Sacco's use of layout to draw the eye around the page really shaped the way I think about page layout. Winsor McCay's comics really influenced the way I think about the use of panels and frames. Jason Sho Green, while not a comic artist, per se, really changed the way I thought about the use of line thickness in an ink drawing. I mean...there are a whole bunch of excellent cartoonists out there! I've learned something about making comics and drawing cartoons from every comic I read.

I've also been influenced a lot by more traditional artists like Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Marcel Duchamp, and Alexander Calder. I'm a huge fan of Futurist typography; this has somewhat shaped the way I think about type/words on a page.

Do you read any comics currently? If so, which ones do you like, and why?

I love Hellboy. Mike Mignola's art never ceases to amaze me. I'm also really into Fables, though I'm a little behind in the story. Otherwise, I just tend to buy whichever comics have art that catches my eye. I'm a total sucker for beautifully drawn comics and good design. I still try to buy all the Chris Ware stuff I can. I love Seth. The Mome anthologies are wonderful; it was the cover design that made me want to buy one in the first place. Kazimir Strzepek's The Mourning Star is one of my more recent purchases, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

What's the reader reaction been like so far to your comics?

The reaction has been better than I ever imagined. A lot of people are like "oh, I can totally relate" to the ones about depression or sexism. My friends are the ones who convinced me to make mini-comics in the first place. They would look at my sketchbooks and be like "when can I buy one of your books?" I only hope the response continues to be so good.

Are you happy creating minis or would you like to try other formats?

I love making mini-comics, but I really want to make something longer. I have this Elvis comic I've been working on as well as a collection of comics about a clown family. I also have this idea of making a series of scenes/pages that aren't bound, but rather come as a set with instructions to shuffle randomly before each reading. Sort of an experiment on randomness and piecing together a meaning from the pieces given. If comics are sequential art, then what happens when the sequence isn't fixed?

Where would you like your comics work to take you over the next few years?

I'd love to be making bigger and better things. I want to work more with color. Being in some anthologies would be incredible. Otherwise, just sticking to a quarterly publishing of mini comics; I want to develop more discipline and produce more work. I'm always pushing myself, and I hope to never stop.

You work in a lot of different styles, how do you decide what look is right for any given story?

Another hard question! It's a lot of trial and error. Sometimes it depends on what tools I have around. If I can't find one particular brush or if one pen is clogged and I don't want to take the time to find or fix it, the I just use what I have available; I'm quite impulsive when it comes to making things. Some of my style decisions are based on the subject matter of the comic. Like, if a comic deals with a rough topic, sometimes I want the art itself to look rougher, et cetera. Otherwise, I'm always experimenting trying new styles, trying to figure out what works and what doesn't. I generally go with my
impulse.

You have a short story called "Red Eye" posted online that is full-colour and gorgeous to look at. What tools do you use, and what's your approach to colour work?

I drew "Red Eye" using this weird menagerie of markers and pens -- highlighters, Tombow colored dual-tip markers, Pitt artist brush pens, Crayola markers, Micron pens, etc. Whatever I could get my hands on, really. Portability was a must for that comic, as I drew it mostly on the subway or sitting in cafes. Markers are surprisingly good for subway drawing.

I also really love to use watercolors. There's something so dynamic about them. I'm ever grateful for my fifth grade teacher teaching me how to use them.

Sometimes, though, I use stuff like xylene/acetone transfers with textures I've photo copied. I really want to do this more, actually. I love how messy and unpredictable it can be. Gouache is something I've just recently started experimenting with, and I have plans for making a comic using only gouache. It would be about a robot.

You do other sorts of art as well, from photography to that felt alligator on your website. Do you prefer one kind of art to express yourself over any others? What do you see as the benefit to you creatively in working in the different art forms?

Generally, I prefer drawing. It's what's most portable and is what I spend the majority of my time doing. My other passion is making sculptures, particularly out of wire. I give some of them gears, cranks, motors, et cetera, so they move. Sometimes it feels like the desire to work in various media is a curse rather than a blessing, as it takes away the time I could spend focusing. As much as I try, though, I can't seem to stop making stuff!! But, I don't know, maybe it's similar to working in different styles of drawing? Some things are best stated with words and pictures. Sometimes you just need a picture. Sometimes only motion works. It's just a feeling you get deep in your gut when you know something is the right way to make it. I don't know how to explain it any better than that.

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Visit L. Nichols online at http://www.dirtbetweenmytoes.com.

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