Zak Sally is drawing my favorite comic on the stands today: Sammy the Mouse. I picked it as my #1 comic of 2008 when the Daily Crosshatch asked for a top five list. Here's the blurb I wrote for them:
"Some people mentioned to me that they were initially put off by Zak Sally switching his drawing style for this comic. And it's hard not to miss that ultra precise style. But there's just something about this series. This is the comic that proves the "drawing in comics is writing" idea better then anything else. There's a certain sacrifice of visual aesthetics for storytellings sake...but the storytelling is so good and the story is so rich (one of the richest in ideas comic I've ever read) that the aesthetic of the drawing BECOMES beautiful. It's really something. Sometimes I can't get over characters in novels...I really think about and care for certain literary creations in the same way I think about close friends. Rarely can I say that about a comic...except this one."
Sally is also the publisher behind La Mano, which is the best small press comics line around. Currently, they are batting a thousand, since every book Sally puts out is pretty much perfect. Dead Ringer is one of the strongest comics to come out in a while, and Sally's choice to publish it in a very distinctive way is a rare case of bold design enriching a comic instead of calling attention to itself.
Find out more about La Mano and Sally here: http://www.lamano21.com/
1. can you describe your drawing routine---how often you draw, how many hour per day---how you break up the day with drawing?
in those ugly days when i was trying/ hoping to eke out an existence drawing comics full-time i was...well, come to think of it, there was so much hustle and busywork involved that i probably only ended up DRAWING a bit more than i do these days (when i am gainfully employed as a teacher 30-odd hours a week...).
how it seems to work now is that...at least on Sammy, i finish an issue and then a couple months go by where i dont have a thought in my head. then i panic because i have no earthly idea what's going to go in the next issue, and i walk around thinking "you're FUCKED, you're TOTALLY FUCKED" for a couple of weeks until i somehow force myself to sit down with my notes and put pencil to paper and then i realize that i've got more material than i know what to do with, and start banging it out...
usually the end of the process, inking/ finalizing the issue, requires 6-8 hours a day (or more likely, whatever i can get in...) for a few months.
for everything else, i just commit to something i can't weasel out of, thereby creating an externally imposed deadline. neat, huh?
long way of saying that there's very little rhyme or reason; i spend my life trying to make more time in which i get to draw comics.
2. how much revision/editing do you do in you work?
it feels like i do more revision and editing than i do drawing; and i think that's actually the most important part of the whole thing...anyone can come up with "ideas"; it's roping those ideas into something that makes sense (aesthetically and otherwise) where the rubber hits the road, and i'm editing and revising at every and all stages of the work.
3. talk about your process---do you write a script or make up the drawing as you go?
Feels like during my (over)long "learning curve" years (soon to be collected by Fantagraphics...) i was kind of unconciously trying to make comics every damn way-- starting from just...single images or drawings in my sketchbook, some piece of crappy writing i'd done while drunk, whatever. in some cases i'd even write the words out and then just constantly "edit" the thing as the storytelling (such as it was...) came along, seeing how the words and pictures came together (or didn't, depending...) and in the end the original words would have all but disappeared.
it just started out from an image or an idea or...something, and just crawled into completion in whatever way seemed most difficult or stupid. it never felt that i ever landed on an actual PROCESS, which is maybe good and maybe bad, who knows.
i'm really happy with the way i work now, which is, to me, a sort of pure COMICS writing. i start with some crappy 14 X 17 marker paper and just...start the thing. i have my notes and my general idea of where it needs to go and acouple things i've GOT TO hit plot- wise, but there's no script, no pre-drawing thumbnails or anything: i'm just "writing" it in comics form, words and pictures all at the same time, on the page in no particular order-- sort of working the beginning, middle and end of the issue at the same time, and then i put them all up on the wall so i can see the whole thing as i'm working on it.
anders nilsen came over to my studio once when he was in town and saw the set-up and said "wow, you put up all your pages too? i thought i was the only guy who did that...", and i was like "really? i just assumed EVERY cartoonist worked this way." maybe it's just cartoonists who grew up in minnesota, i don't know.
anyway, i'm constantly looking up and referring to it, and the whole thing gets worked pretty organically; sometimes i'll start hitting inks on a scene that i'm real sure about while maybe...i'm still in rough doodles on other parts. i just keep working the whole thing until until it gets to this point where...it's this odd thing where all of a sudden an issue turns from a collection of scenes that i HOPE will come together into what almost feels like an...algebraic equation. it just clicks into focus, it all makes sense.
i cant finish an issue until i get that thing. and god help me if i fake it.
4. do you compose the page as a whole or do you focus more on individual panel composition?
well, with the bass ackwards way i'm working now, it seems like i end up spending a LOT of time on just...composing the actual panel BORDERS, as weird as that sounds; i'm thinking about what's gonna go IN them, of course, but it seems to me like that's this skeleton of how i'm attempting to lead the reader (and myself) through the page and the story...seems like i spend a lot of time making slight shifts and balances, a little bigger, a litle smaller, to the left, etc etc.
and then there's always all this tweaking of the compositions within the panels as you go, and...i'm sure any cartoonist will say they try to work the overall page as a design while they work, but... it's always a balance: try to "design" your pages TOO MUCH, and the storytelling can suffer at the design's expense. don't pay enough attenton to the overall design of your page and it can look like unbalanced crud.
i just realized that i should be cartooning instead of writing about it.
too late now; it appears that i'm on a roll.
> 5. what tools do you use (please list all)?
let's see: i somehow ended up using these 01 02 "Liner" brushes, where the brush fibers are about twice as long as the normal length. i have no idea how i landed on this, i guess i just picked some out of the "sale" barrel and came to to like the way they feel.
then i do my horrible lettering with a...well, issue 1 of Sammy was a standard Hunt 102 nib (but the japanese version, because the standard Hunts are FUCKING GARBAGE oh it makes me so mad...), on #2 i switched to a rapidograph, but nothing i do keeps it from looking shitty, so i'm semi-resigned to that (and totally opposed to computer lettering, so i'm screwed. and so are YOU, dear reader.). i keep switching ink, too; get it, let it sit on the radiator for 3 weeks, cry. get more. hear about different, better ink. cry.
i recently got one of those Pentel brush pens-- the P-10, and i love it so much i'm seriously considering doing the next issue with that. i love the way the thing feels, but i'm concerned about the ink; not dark enough, and can't get a good word on how archival the stuff in the cartridges is.
aside from that, the regular: .05 mechanical pencil, pentel stick erasers, pro white, an exacto for cutting out bad drawings, etc.
i used to use beer, as well.
and tears. buckets of tears.
(UPDATE: since i started writing this thing out-- about 2 MONTHS AGO now-- i've decided i'm gonna do the next issue with the Kaimei brush pen; the $30 version, not the $60. also, am trying out this Ph Martin's Pen White, which is about twice as expensive as the regular stuff, but seems to flow real well through a nib or whathaveyou, so i'm gonna give that a shot as well...)
6. what kind(s) of paper do you use?
the "process' i've developed is just so retarded: there's so many problems with it, but every time i try to change it, i just go back to the same thing...i suppose the things i like about it must outweigh the significant drawbacks, but...anyway.
like i said, lay it out and work it over on rag 14 x 17" marker paper, then i ink on transparent Vellum so i can shift and change composition on the fly or mess with my underdrawings.
i like the way the Vellum takes ink, but the ink does wrinkle and shrink it a bit, which sucks. i'd do this same process but substitute Bristol for the Vellum to avoid this problem, but the idea of lightboarding the whole thing makes my skull hurt.
so, that's my "black" or my line art on the Sammy stuff (which is actually just 100% opacity of the 2 Pantones i chose for the series...); then i make copy reductions of the pages to print size and do pencil/ graphite overlays for both my Blue and Brown plates (which gets all those in-between gradations)....convert them to duotone and comp it all together, and there's a finished page.
every time i describe it, it seems more absurd; i basically draw each page 3 times.
7. do you read a lot of comics? are you someone who reads comics and then gets exctied to make more comics---or is your passion for making comics not linked to any particular love for other comics?
i'm almost embarrassed by my love of reading comics.
not embarrased so much as...i'll go to the library and read crappy superhero comics (or, i'll try to, unless they're just TOO BAD to finish...) before i'll, you know, watch some dumb TV show. it used to be a very...serious thing for me, reading a comic, but now i find that... i guess it's really just an enjoyable way for me to take in information, whether it be high art or mindless junk culture (in either case, i'm glad society has "progressed" to the point where i no longer have to look at those ugly ADS glaring in my face in the middle of a story....LOST? i netflix it. comics, i wait til the book collection--with the junk, anyway. i know, it's heresy.).
ok i take some of that back. some stuff is still pretty irredemably bad, and i cant read it. but really that goes for comics of any stripe: some "indy" art- comics these days are as guilty as any other genre.
but All-Star Superman? in a HEARTBEAT, sir.
8. do you make comics for a living? if not, how do you support yourself, and how does this relate to your comics making process?
maybe someday. it's better now than when i first sort of... really threw my hat in the ring, so to speak, but nothing near a liveable wage.
i was a musician for a living for many years, and i remember going through seattle on tour when i was thinking real hard about leaving my then-band, and having lunch with my pal (Fantagraphics books') Eric Reynolds, and saying to him "ok, tell me the truth: is it possible to make a living doing the kind of comics i do?", and his immediate and unequivocal response was "No."
it's one thing to hear that and another to find it out yourself.
being shit broke and working on your art when you're 25 is one thing: doing that while having a wife, kid, dog, car, and mortgage payments is a whole 'nother can of worms; you can kiss your freewheeling bohemian days goodbye for good, and welcome the pure terror of not having health insurance into your world. anyway, was barely, BARELY scraping out a bare minimum month to month, while slowly sliding into credit card debt.
this year i got offered (and took) a full-time job teaching comics at a college here in mpls, so i've got a salary, benefits, all that stuff at least temporarily ( and strangely, i'm getting comics projects done as well...).
and no; the irony of the situation is NOT lost on me.
9. do other artforms often seem more attractive to you?
for the first time in my life, i ENJOY making comics. there's nothing i'd rather do (art-wise).
i don't want to make movies (sorry, "Films"...), or make "Fine Art" (gggggrrrhh...). when comics are good, there's nothing better. nothing.
(...i made a record a while back, all by myself, which was...strangely enjoyable, but...maybe i spent too much time in that "industry"...)
10. what artwork (or artists) do you feel kinship with?
dylan williams and sparkplug. a lot of folks, really; some of whom i've know through 'zines or comics for... coming up on 20 years now i guess. but i don't think of it as "comics" or "'zines" per se, more like anything that comes down the pike that's got a certain... thing to it, be it comics or zines or art or music or whatever. the older i get the less specific it gets. johnny p. just emailed me an interview with Ian Mackaye, and i still just... think that guy and his take on the way to make your stuff and move through the world with it in an honest and sustainable, no- bullshit manner is still incredibly inspiring to me. same as when i was 16, and 22, and 28 and 35.
i still get horribly excited whenever i run into a... 'zine, or a comic, or a band or anything really that seems... like it's own thing, out of nowhere.
i'm not explaining this right; i feel that kinship with a lot of different folks, for a lot of different reasons.
11. is a community of artists important or not important to you?
it is. and it isn't.
there's really a lot of cartoonists here in minneapolis; it's kind of amazing. and for the most part, i really like seeing those folks. same with when i go to conventions like SPX or MOCCA or whatever, i feel the same way-- here's this group of folks, and some of 'em i've known in some capacity for almost 2 decades now; i'd be lying if i said there wasn't some snark and whathaveyou (seems to happen in any extended group...), but by and large it's great to see folks and see what they've been up to. REALLY great. even at San Diego Comic Con (and this year was my first), i have to say that despite the raw INSANITY of the thing i somehow had this inexplicable warm and fuzzy feeling about it all (even though that's a much more, uh...let's call it "varied" group than, say SPX or APE...).
with that said, the only cartoonist i talk to on a real regular basis is John P, and... we talk about comics sometimes, not all the time.
but when it comes to CREATING the stuff, it's just... deeply rooted in me that this is something you/ i do ALONE; the idea of sitting around drawing with other cartoonists is like...i can't get my head around it. for me, it's akin to trying to take a dump while someone's standing next to you; you could DO IT, i guess, but it doesn't sound like fun. for me.
knowing that stuff is out there, that people are in their rooms all over the world, scratching away... that IS important to me. very. it's like a shared experience of, uh, solitude. i see or talk to kevin huizenga once every 3 years, but...i know he's busting his tail, probably at this very moment, you know?
and, of course, i feel that with every single person who has done something with me on La Mano, on an extraordinarily deep level.
12. what is your parents/family's reaction to your work?
hard to say.
we should ask them.
13, what is more important to you---style or idea?
how about "STYLEdea"?
you know, i really...don't care, generally: what's important to me is that whatever it is has a considered and consistent internal logic and integrity to it, whether it's...you know, "naive" or beautifully rendered or cartoony or whatever. as long as it works. and something "working" is pretty non-quantifiable, really; if we could put a name on it, everybody would do it, right (and obviously, THAT'S not happening.).
i will say the one thing that brings out a real ugly side of me is my reaction to works that... are ALL STYLE; stuff that i feel are purposefully working in a "cool" trend or "movement" or whathaveyou. where, rather than searching out thier own thing, an artist consciously apes some current "trend". working through your influences is one thing, but that insincere, halfassed bullshit just makes me want to tear flesh.
maybe that's harsh...i guess i just think of bellbottoms or those outfits Duran Duran wore.
sure you look "cool" now, but eat too much of a trend and be prepared to get shit out the other end a decade later, clowny.
see? this is a bad side of me. we should move on.
14. is drawing a pleasure to you or a pain?
these days, it's mostly...pretty great.
there's not a lot of room in my life for hand-wringing about it anymore... i just don't have the time.
so, even when it's a pain, it's... a pain that i'm CHOOSING, right? it's something that i GET TO DO, and that makes me a lucky guy, as cheeseball as that may sound...
15. when you meet someone new, do you talk about being an artist right away? do you identify yourself as an artist or something else?
16. do you feel at all connected to older comic artists like steve ditko or jack kirby---or does this seem like a foreign world to you?
i'm gonna answer both of these at once: i say i'm a cartoonist.
i think it's a lot easier to say that now than it was, say, 10 years ago; there's a lot more understanding of what a cartoonist is these days...it doesn't require a half-hour preamble of "NO, not like in the papers, and...no, not like superheroes either, and...not pornography, really...maybe...uh...". to be honest, my love and appreciation and AMAZEMENT re: Kirby seems to grow every year...i just read that "Strange And Stranger" book about Ditko, and his stuff too, is just...pretty fascinating, even when it's...um. unreadable.
obviously, what they do is so different from what i do that it's beyond description, but at the same time...i'm doing EXACTLY the same thing they did, somehow. i mean, King- Cat and...Devil Dinosaur. laugh all you want, but it's still comics, and i'd say there's way more in common between Johnny p and Kirby than Kirby and... Rob Liefield or whomever, you know?
it's this strange feeling of "belonging" to this thing that... i can't explain: like this club that chose YOU, not the other way around, and that nobody is quite comfortable yelling "HEY!! i'm a CARTOONIST!!!", because we all know it's a pack of weirdos. but at the same time, i'm real proud of it. it just takes a very specific type of wingnut to persevere in the seriously debased and pissed-upon form of comics, to continue at it when there's always a million reasons (...better money, recognition, fame, the respect of-- well, ANYONE....and just the semi- insane amount of consisitent EFFORT it takes to get a comic done...) to quit.
there's also this tradition of invisible people in an "industry" that's measured in its relative worth to, you know, kiddie porn or juvenilia or just plain old trash culture that i find insanely rich and fascinating (and also crushing and brutal): it's a history that encompasses everything from Schulz to Crumb to Kirby, to Herriman and Dirty Plotte and 'zine culture and punk and hippies and Al Capp yelling at John Lennon, and...well; rampant alcoholism.
it's like co-habiting the isle of misfit toys, but i'm honored to be part of that.
in no way am i putting myself in with any of the aforementioned geniuses in terms of my COMICS, but i do... i feel like a cartoonist; like, at the end of the day, i'm part of that.
when you describe yourself as a "Cartoonist", it means not just you but Segar and McCay and Deitch and Los Bros and Ware and Hankiewicz and Herb Trimpe and Briefer and Chris Cilla and...you get the picture, even if the person you are SAYING IT TO doesn't.
it's kind of a big deal, to me.
17. do you ever feel the impulse to not draw comics?
for most of my life, i had that impulse every 30 seconds.
now, it's never. ok not never; there's always some moments of debilitating horror and panic, but now that i'm 200 years old, it feels like i can work with some confidence that i'm going to come out the other side.
turns out the trick is that you just KEEP WORKING.
18. do you draw from life?
not nearly as much as i should, but yes.
i keep a sketchbook that turns over every couple years.
i wish i drew in it more.
19. do you pencil out comics and then ink? or do you sometimes not pencil?
i think i covered that pretty well earlier, but...
no, i never just go straight to ink. there's always something there, underneath.
20. what does your drawing space look like?
as if i haven't rattled on long enough already, a word about my "drawing space"; i rent a space that also holds the La Mano offices, print shop, warehouse, and shipping area. it's about the size of a garage, and i've got a small space in back cordoned off for drawing.
i'd always thought that having a "studio" away from home was a frivolous waste of $ (i.e. "if you can't do it at home, you're a SISSY!"), but found that, at least for me, working at home was just a world of distractions (and this was BEFORE i had a son running around like a maniac...) and excuses. i found that when i was actually paying $ to have a space devoted to this thing i called my "work", 2 things happened: 1) there was no longer any excuses or distractions and 2) the fact of paying $ for this space filled me with such guilt that i HAD TO use the space wisely to justify that expense. it might just be a psychological distinction, but my studio is now the place i go to WORK, and it's made a world of difference in my productivity.
i had to write that all out because everyone else's drawing spaces are, like, on their beds or the floor and it makes me feel like a ....maharajah, or the secretary of funnybook defense or something.