Sunday, April 30, 2006

Friends of the Fiend 15: Brian Fies.

The Cartoon Fiend is breaking with tradition, again, to say a quick word about Einsner Award winning cartoonist Brian Fies book, Mom's Cancer. Mom's Cancer is, in my opinion, one of the most important comic books, or graphic novels, to be published, ever. It ranks along with the work of Speigleman, Sacco, Burns, Ware, and Pekar, et al, in bringing about a new credibilty to cartoon art, as we enter a period where the 'graphic novel' is being firmly established as a leading form of artistic expression.
If you don't have this book, get it now.

CF. Hello, Brian.

BF: Howdy.

CF. Okay, what are your current projects, anything exciting in the pipeline that you can tell us about?

BF: Tough question. I'm going to Hawaii in a couple of weeks to research a paper I'm co-authoring on solar photovoltaic R&D breakthroughs for the U.S. Department of Defense, but as excited as I am about that I don't think that's what you meant.

Seriously, what makes the question tough is that I still have a demanding day job and don't know where my cartooning ambitions fit right now. Mom's Cancer is out and I hear doing well, but it'd be irresponsibly reckless to turn aside paying work in anticipation of speculative cartooning income. It's still a spare-time avocation for me. Getting a book published is wonderful but it's not a career.

Despite such unseemly whining, I am pursuing a graphic novel idea I'm very excited about. I have to do some research and will know within a couple of months whether that idea will fly. If not, I have others. I've said before that Mom's Cancer and the Eisner Award have opened doors I've been knocking on my whole life. I don't intend to waste the opportunity.

CF. Did you always want to be a cartoonist, and set out to become one, or was it a gradual process?

BF. Always always always. Drawing brought me great hypnotic transcendent joy as far back as I can remember. I clearly recall being a child, maybe age 5 or so, drawing and redrawing the abstract shape of the Superman symbol trying to get it right when it suddenly clicked in my mind that it was a stylized letter "S." The light bulb over my head blazed at 300 watts that day, I assure you! I think I submitted my first comic strip to a syndicate at age 14. One rejection slip came back with an editor's handwritten note that read, "Pogo-like strip," which I never knew to take as a rebuke or a compliment.

Unfortunately, I also wanted to be a lot of other things and I spent about the first 25 years of my life trying to realize them all simultaneously and none very well. I must confess I grew up loving writing and science (particularly astronomy) as much as I loved cartooning. My career and life since have been about balancing left-brain/right-brain interests that are about equally important to me. Cartooning exercises both sides pretty well.

The work you do at the moment, can you tell us something about the process?

BF: Mom's Cancer was based on copious notes I took as my family went through the experience of my mother's diagnosis and treatment. Anything that struck me as interesting, surprising, or meaningful I tried to capture in a note or sketch. Weeks later I sorted through them to figure out what contributed to the story and what didn't.

This was the sculpting and shaping part, finding threads that ran through a hundred unrelated incidents and weaving them into a story. I was a brutal editor: if it didn't advance the story, it was out. You have to remember that when I began working on Mom's Cancer I had no idea how it was going to end, so there was also some improvisation involved. It was tough.

The notes became a script with thumbnails that I then sat down and drew with the tools I use in the format I work to.

CF. I know you've been asked this a million times, butwhat tools do you use, and what format do you work to?

BF: Glad you asked! I'm very traditional. Based on rough thumbnails, I pencil on two-ply Bristol board, letter with Speedball nibs B5 and B6, then apply Higgins ink with a small assortment of brushes and crow-quills. I have a fountain pen I like to use for borders and some linework, but I try to minimize my use of technical pens, felt-tips, or anything that lays down a line of unvarying weight. I find them lifeless. I gently erase the pencil and scan the pages into Photoshop, where I do whatever clean-up, editing, shading and coloring are needed. Anything I once would have done with white paint or razor blades I am very happy to handle in the computer.

When I started Mom's Cancer I knew I wanted to put it online as a Webcomic, so I deliberately laid out each page's aspect ratio to equal that of a typical computer monitor screen. This proportion turned out to be pretty hard to break into conveniently sized panels; I stuck with it, but don't think I'd do it again. When it came time to publish as a book, the horizontal layout was actually one thing my editor like about it. The shape makes it a little different.

CF. Is the cartoonist a proper artist? I mean, does cartooning have the same cultural impact as some otherartforms, in your opinion?

BF: I think cartoonists are certainly "proper artists," but I also think we have to acknowledge and maybe embrace the profession's disrepute as well. It's part of the deal. Bill Watterson did a "Calvin and Hobbes" strip pointing out that a cartoon is bourgeois, a Lichtenstein painting of a cartoon is Art, while a cartoon of a Lichtenstein painting of a cartoon circles back to bourgeois. It does seem like we just can't win, but at the same time cartoons and comics have a kind of outlaw lumpen legitimacy that gallery art lacks.

I compare cartooning to popular music. Each combines two artistic media--words and drawings versus words and music--to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Dissect any song to look at the lyrics and melody separately, and they're invariably awful. The lyrics are poor poetry and the tunes are simplistic and repetitious. The music to "Louie Louie" is nothing special and the words are indecipherable, but put 'em together and you've got a great cultural touchstone. Same with cartooning.

If Woody Guthrie, Billie Holiday, and Jimi Hendrix are artists, then so are Charles Schulz, Will Eisner, and Robert Crumb. I think it's about that simple. On the other hand, Sturgeon's Law ("90 percent of everything is crap") applies to cartooning as much as it does anything else.

CF. Is there any other area of cartooning you'd like to work in, if you can find the time?

BF: I'm pretty sure my autobiographical comics career is over. I believe everyone's life contains one good story and I told mine. Unless you happen to be an exile from revolutionary Iran, I think writing two or more stories about yourself is probably a bad idea. You're not that interesting.

Having said that, I'd like to explore an area I'd call "speculative non-fiction," bringing a journalistic approach to cartooning that might include a first-person point of view. Not quite a Joe Sacco globe-trotting journalism, but maybe more of a what-if gee-whiz journalism. I don't know, I haven't figured that out yet, and I haven't seen anyone doing quite what I have in mind. Maybe it's not possible.

I just re-read that and realized I am an enormous wheezy bag of hot gas. Sorry.

I would love to do a daily comic strip. I think I'd do a bang-up job developing characters, situations and themes, and I know I have the discipline to work alone and meet deadlines because I've done it as a writer for seven years. My only shortcoming, as I had one syndicate editor suggest, is that I may simply not be funny. Small handicap. I'm working on it.

Until I was in my early twenties I also had ambitions to draw superhero comics. I would still love to do an eight-page filler story like they used to put in the back of those 64-page summer spectaculars. Alas, I don't think that type of story exists anymore, and Marvel and DC have both moved too far away from anything I recognize as super or heroic.

CF. Who were your major artistic influences?

BF: I found this question so disturbing that I wrote a long blog entry of my own about it on my Mom's Cancer blog. Short answer: No one and everyone. Slightly more detailed answer: E.B. White and Chesley Bonestell. Satisfied?

CF. Who was/is your favourite cartoonist/writer, of all time?

BF: It's as hard to name a favorite cartoonist as it is to name a favorite food or most beautiful woman. You like different things for different reasons. I'm afraid my preferences are also sadly America-centric, but that's how I grew up. Of course my list includes Charles Schulz, George Herriman, Milton Caniff, Will Eisner, the usual. I find myself remembering Gus Arriola's work extremely fondly; "Gordo" was a graceful, clever strip that was beautifully drawn.

I also have a very special place in my pantheon for Winsor McCay. The first thing I did with the advance money I earned for Mom's Cancer was buy an original McCay cel from his "Gertie the Dinosaur" film, which had been a lifetime goal of mine. I could have afforded it before, but it was very important to me that I buy my McCay with "cartooning money." Otherwise, I didn't deserve to have it.

But since you asked a direct question I'll give you a direct answer: Walt Kelly. In my opinion he was simply the complete cartoonist who could do it all, including rip your heart out.

CF. There's a lot of talk about a new 'paper-less future' and reading habits', do you think this will affect cartooning, at some point.

BF: It already has, hasn't it? I've been in bulletin-board discussions in which I've been mocked as a dinosaur for my pathetic devotion to paper, ink, and those other tired relics of the 15th-century. We're probably a decade away from a time when it's all electrons for everyone, start to finish, and more's the pity for us.

But I don't really think newspapers, magazines and books are going anywhere for a long time, any more than radio disappeared when television was invented or painting went extinct with photography. I do expect them to evolve. I know that reading on paper taps into different parts of my brain than does reading on a computer, and the former is an experience that I and a lot of other people find greatly more engrossing and enjoyable. Eventually, I suppose we'll all carry around a flexible electronic screen and the media will become indistinguishable. And then I guess it won't matter much. Because I will be dead.

CF. If you had the time, and you were helicoptered in to work on anything you chose, any publication, strip, panel, character, book, show, what would you like to work on?

BF: Put me in charge of redesigning Tomorrowland in Disneyland. It used to be cool. In my spare time I'll produce a new "Star Trek" television series.

Among comics, "For Better or For Worse" has a rich universe it would be fun to play in. I've never told anyone this, but Lynn Johnston was an indirect inspiration to me while I did Mom's Cancer. In the 1970s, before she began For Better or For Worse, she did a book titled David, We're Pregnant. People have asked if I was thinking about Pekar or Spiegelman when I did Mom's Cancer, but what I really had way in the back of my mind was Johnston, who preceded both of them. I kind of thought of Mom's Cancer as "David, We've Got Cancer and This Time It's Not Funny."

CF. Is there anything you'd rather be?

BF: Well, I'd really like to be a full-time cartoonist. I have no confidence that I could pull that off now and still feed my family. Maybe after another project or two. I also would have made a fine astronaut or middle-school science and art teacher. But I'm pretty happy with how things are working out, keeping in mind that I'd trade all of my recent success for my mother's life and health. I never forget where this is all coming from.

CF. Thank you for visiting with us.

BF: You're welcome. It beats working.


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