Friday, October 31, 2008

John Porcellino

John Porcellino is a favorite cartoonist to many. He has published over 60 issues of his comic King Cat. Porcellino would be important simply for his self publishing efforts, but it's his actual comics that have been important to me and many others. There are currently 3 collections available of his work available. Find all about them at his website:

John was unable to provide photos of his studio but his interview is so good that I'm sure no one will mind.

1. can you describe your drawing routine---how often you draw, how many hours per day---how you break up the day with drawing?

It really varies. Sometimes I’ll go weeks or even months without drawing much at all. But all that time I’m working on King-Cat. I spend a lot of time writing, and revising, before I sit down to start drawing. I keep notebooks and scraps of paper everywhere with little ideas or phrases jotted down on them. Sometimes I start to wonder if I’m ever gonna get a new issue out. Then somehow it starts to gel and I can “see” the issue in my head-- where all this stuff has been leading. Then, once I sit down to begin drawing the new issue, I might work 12 hours a day until it’s done.

Usually I try to draw/work in the mornings, cuz the later the day gets the worse I feel physically and mentally, so it helps to do my comics when things are smoother in my brain/body.

2. how much revision/editing do you do in you work?

A good bulk of my creative time is spent revising. It’s hit or miss. Sometimes you get it on the first try, sometimes I agonize for weeks over little words choices etc. One reason I spend so much time on the writing is I like to have a clear idea where the comic is going before I start drawing. It’s hard to edit the pages after they’re drawn, and I try not to do too much Photoshopping.

3. talk about your process---do you write a script or make up the drawing as you go?

At this point I almost always have a completed script before I start drawing. Every once in a while though I do just sit down with a blank piece of paper and start writing/drawing off the top of my head. It’s interesting to see what comes out that way.

4. do you compose the page as a whole or do you focus more on individual panel composition?

I tend to concentrate on the panels and the rest works itself out. Sometimes I’ll compose with the idea of the end of the page, or the start-- meaning I take into consideration that slight pause that happens when the reader turns the page, or their eyes move to the top of the next facing page. When you can work something like that in, I think it adds something to the reading experience.

5. what tools do you use (please list all)?

I use various non-photo blue pencils to draw with. I ink with Microns, or sometimes a soft-lead pencil or black colored pencil. I use brushes only rarely nowadays. Using the pencil to “ink” gives me some of the flexibility and surprise of using a brush, but a little more control, which I like.

I used Rapidographs till the late nineties, but I always had problems with them splattering and clogging; and the ink took so long to dry, I’d smear things sometimes. I like Microns cuz they’re easier in that way, but I think they’re a little inconsistent-- the line quality really varies as the pen gets broken in. And with my artwork being so simple, and typically drawn at 100%, that kind of thing can really bother me. So when I’m drawing I often have a stack of Microns on the table, not only varying line weights, but in various states of decay. At first Microns give me a scraggy, thin line, then they flatten out into a nice smooth line, then they start to dry up and thin out, then they mysteriously start making a thick, wet line, then they start to erode and give a scratchy unpredictable line… so I have all these pens on the table with identifying marks on them so I know which one is in which state, and I plow ahead.

Other than that, just the usual-- a Staedtler Mars plastic eraser, X-Acto knife, misc. black and colored inks, rubber cement, white-out tape, old typewriter correction sheets (the best for whiting out tight or detailed areas), miscellaneous white-out bottles, a ruler (for cutting paper), various brushes for whiting out or filling in with ink, scraps of paper, a small light box for tracing.

6. what kind(s) of paper do you use?

For years I’ve just used some kind of inexpensive smooth laser paper. I fold it in half and it’s King-Cat sized, but sometimes the quality and smoothness varies from batch to batch. The nice thing is I can buy a ream for not too much money, and get like 3 or 4 years worth of comics pages out of that.

Recently I have been using nicer paper, bristols, for doing commissioned artwork on. It’s great-- using a good paper like that-- it kind of made drawing fun again-- that delicious tactile sense of putting this ink down on paper. So I may start experimenting with using better paper for my actual comics. We’ll see… For the first 5 or 6 years of King-Cat I just used these cheapo notepads I got from my Dad, that read “From the Desk of Charles Porcellino”, and had like a clip art image of a pen and bottle of ink. I’d just use the back side to draw on… and sometimes you could see where the printed ink bled through onto the comic side, but I always thought that was funny.

One thing I like about comics is, if you need to, you can really get away with just the basics in terms of materials.

7. do you read a lot of comics? are you someone who reads comics and then gets excited to make more comics---or is your passion for making comics not linked to any particular love for other comics?

Sometimes reading comics inspires me directly to sit down and draw, but mostly it’s like a kind of psychological boost I get.

I have a lot of hang-ups about comics, and for years I never really read too many. I used to pretty much just read whatever I happened to get in the mail from creators. As that scene kind of got smaller, I found I was seeing a lot less comics. It helps me to read people’s comics, because I think: “See, other people do this and it’s fine…” Nowadays it’s hard to afford comics, but I try. I check them out of the library sometimes. I think it’s helpful for me. It kind of reminds me: “Oh yeah-- I like comics!”

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?

For the last few years, and off and on in the past, I’ve really tried to make a living doing just my art. To be honest, I don’t know how I feel about it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing that, but it sure is hard, and the stress it creates kind of messes me up.

When I work dayjobs sometimes it’s actually kind of inspiring to me-- like I have this secret life of comics outside this, and it kind of keeps me going and strengthens my faith in my art.

As I mentioned I have a lot of hang-ups about art, and comics. I struggle with it all the time. It might be that trying to make a living 100% off my comics brings out too many of those bad feelings-- the doubt and insecurity. I don’t know.

9/ do other artforms often seem more attractive to you?

Well for years I made music too, and that was nice balance. It’s a different part of the brain that gets exercised. Same is true for painting. I miss getting messy, and the unpredictability of painting-- not knowing where things are going and being surprised and making mistakes that turn out to help the work. I bought some paints this summer with the idea of getting back into it, but I haven’t really had time to do so yet.

Sometimes I think music is the best medium, cuz it has words, but also that non-intellectual aspect of SOUND, where emotions are translated without words or ideas. It adds to the power. Then I think movies are the best because they can be closer to real life. And formally, they’re visual, literary, and musical. So they cover a lot of those bases.

But the fact is, I’m a cartoonist. It’s what I do.

10. what artwork (or artists) do you feel kinship with?

I draw inspiration from just about everything. And I can find a connection with just about any creative person. That said, a short list of people and things that have had a strong impact on me would be: The Chicago Imagists, Lynda Barry, Matt Groening, Jenny Zervakis, Jeff Zenick, Eric Bag-O-Donuts, Max Beckmann, Matisse, Warhol, Duchamp, Joe Chips, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Punk Rock, Han Shan, Ryokan, Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, Dogen Zenji, the Arts and Crafts movement, Kerouac, Kobayashi Issa, Thoreau, John Lennon, and the Zine movement. To name just a few.

One time I was in Chicago with Kevin Huizenga. We were at the Art Institute, it was a few days after 9/11. I was wandering around looking at all this great art, and I just couldn’t relate to it-- not only the imagery, but even the process-- I was wondering how did people make these pictures, and why? I couldn’t connect-- it was this weird state of mind. Then, from down a long hallway, I saw a large black and white print by Un’ichi Hiratsuka, of the Buddhist monk Nichiren, and I practically fell over-- it was so bold and simple and lovely -- and I could intimately relate to it-- it was an astounding experience. Learning about Hiratsuka really added something to my thinking, about art, and being an artist.

11. is a community of artists important or not important to you?

I used to think “I could be anywhere and do what I do.” And that’s still true. However, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to really see the benefit of having artists around that you can relate to, that you can talk to about stuff. To me, making art is a pretty private thing. I squirrel myself away and make it. But then it’s nice to emerge from that mindset, and have people around to share with.

12. what is your parents/family's reaction to your work?

My Dad used to read King-Cat, and we would talk about it. He surprised me once-- we were having a conversation about art and DIY, etc, and I saw that he really understood where I was coming from. I’m not sure he necessarily thought it was the best thing for me, but he understood it.

Now, my Mom reads King-Cat sometimes, but I have to go through each new issue and make sure there’s nothing in there that’ll bother her. So she doesn’t read every issue. And she doesn’t really talk about it when she does.

13, what is more important to you---style or idea?

I guess you need both-- an idea, and a way to express it that makes the thing whole.

14. is drawing a pleasure to you or a pain?

Well it’s been a particularly bad time for me lately, so my answer might reflect that… but-- when I’m not drawing it seems like the hardest thing in the world. I’d rather do just about anything than draw. And for that reason I procrastinate a lot. Then when I finally sit down and start drawing, the instant the pencil hits the page, I realize “This is what I was born to do.” Then the second I stand up, that feeling of confidence is so distant, it’s almost like it never existed, and the despair and fear sets in again. It must be something weird in my brain. I don’t understand it.

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?

For a long time I would never bring it up. I was afraid of being an artist. So to fight back I started trying to come out and say it when the situation warranted. Now I’ll say I’m an artist, or sometimes a cartoonist. Why not? It’s the truth.

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?

Yes, I feel connected to those guys, though I should say I never really read much of that stuff growing up. I love to look at it though. You get a sense of the paths cartooning has taken and is taking. Anyone who sits at a drawing table and digs away at comics I can relate to in one way or another. These guys dedicated their lives to this artform. It’s inspiring.

17. do you ever feel the impulse to not draw comics?

All the time. Practically every issue of King-Cat I’ve released over the last 8 or so years, I’ve wondered whether it will be the last. The process is so painful to me. I know people don’t like to hear that. And I know it’s not like that for everyone. But in my case it’s true. I have OCD, and it makes a lot of things really difficult. When I’m focused on comics, the OCD focuses on comics, and it can be brutal.

I often think of trying to lead a normal life. It seems really inviting at times. The bottom line is I know that as crazy as comics makes me, I get crazier if I don’t do ‘em. So I do ‘em, and hope for the best.

18. do you draw from life?

Yes. I like to draw alleyscapes in particular. I’ve sometimes thought if I quit comics maybe I would become a landscape painter. It took me a long time to understand landscape painting. But once I did, it seemed like the purest, most beautiful thing.

19. do you pencil out comics and then ink? or do you sometimes not pencil?

I almost always pencil first. Then I dread inking, cuz I like how the pencils look-- they have a looseness and an organic quality to them. Then I start inking, and I like how the ink looks, so… The only times I don’t pencil first are sketching, or those comics I mentioned above where I just let loose on the page as therapy.

20. what does your drawing space look like?

A mess.


Jason Overby said...

John - I forgot to mention that you are someone I've felt a spiritual kinship to and been inspired by - almost more than anyone else!

Steve Lafler said...

Your discussion of the properties of microns was quite thrilling, I kid you not. Great piece.

David Heatley said...

John is wonderful. He ranks high among my favorites. I think his influence has spread far and wide and it is just now beginning to be recognized. He's the first cartoonist I know of to make simple, spiritually rich, meditative stories that don't wear any brand of religion on their sleeve. I guess they're all Buddhist comics, but they're so personal. Detached, but still emotionally rich. I showed a friend of mine outside of comics John's work and told him he was into meditation and Buddhism and he said "I can tell just by looking at it."

I love what John said about feeling alienated from the process of making fine art, but being floored by an ancient printmaker. I'm a little more catholic in my tastes, but I think I know just what he means.

fomalhaut said...

great interview, thank you for posting it
the questions were excellent, giving us an opportunity to really know John inside out

amabel87654 said...

He might be really awesome.


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