Monday, September 14, 2009

Nick Bertozzi: The Perpetual Student of Comics

Words: Christopher Irving . Pictures: Seth Kushner

Nick Bertozzi stands in his studio in Queens, showing a stack of original art pages from Lewis and Clark, his upcoming graphic novel for First Second. He’s wearing a white t-shirt and a peaked Captain’s cap, jeans, and a pair of loafers. Nick’s normally the epitome of relaxed and laid back, but when you get him talking about the art and language of comics, he lights up and thinks in as many directions as his art is diverse. He’s pointing out the use of double-page spreads in Lewis and Clark as chapter headers, tiers of panels going across both pages, with panels overlapping the gutter for a forced visual continuity.

“It’s important to point out first that I’m not referring to a double-page spread in the Kirby style, that is to say one panel with a ‘Chapter Three’ heading like ‘The Peril of the Perilous Perils’ in which Kamandi is in the midst of a battle royale between jaguars,” Nick points out a few minutes later. He’s sitting in his small wooden desk chair (the frame covered in stickers), leaning back at a slight angle to accommodate his long legs. The walls around us are made of patterned white tin, just like the ceiling. “I’m using it in the Eisner sense in which the two pages are an entire unit. What happens with comics reading is that you scan the two pages whether you like it or not: you just do it. With most comics you read the verso and then the recto page. But Jason Lutes used both pages to compliment one another.”

In 2007, Nick did the final art for the cartoonist behind the graphic novels Jar of Fools and Berlin, on the biographical Houdini: The Handcuff King for The Center for Cartoon Studies.

“Jason was originally going to draw Houdini until he realized how many crowd scenes he’d drawn in his layouts. So the publisher called me and said: ‘Nick, we want to pay you X amount of dollars to draw this from Jason’s layouts.’ I said ‘You’re going to pay me that much to learn at the knee of one of the greatest American cartoonists, and it’s going to be edited by my favorite American cartoonist, James Sturm? No problem, sign me up.’ Maybe I should have thought twice before signing since I had to draw so many crowds of people wearing bowler hats.”

“What did I learn about the spread? That was an unbelievably fantastic experience. If you were to look and compare Lutes’ layouts to my drawings, I didn’t add that much. I tell my students at SVA that Lutes’ are the Gold Standard of layouts, because they’re so clear and so precise. There are moments where I added details or switched the perspective of a panel, but by and large that’s Jason Lutes with me as the set dresser, costume designer, and makeup guy. That’s about it. It was a phenomenal learning experience, and ingrained in me the idea that there’s so much to learn in comics, and so many cartoonists to learn from. Speaking of which, the single best learning experience I’ve ever head was drawing a Tin Tin satire in HergĂ©’s style. When Winsor McKay and George Herriman have essentially done it all for us; there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel when you can go back to HergĂ© or Charles Schultz, and absorb it into your own comics work.”
While an amazingly confident and capable cartoonist on his own, Bertozzi’s combination of modesty and a desire to learn make him a perpetual student of the comic arts.

“With every project I take on, starting from when I first began making comics while at Fat Jack’s Comics Crypt back in 1993, I’ve wanted to learn something,” Nick reflects. “I’ve always had this idea of where I wanted to go with comics and that the comics I’ve wanted to make have been the ones I’ve wanted to read – they’re intricate, complex, moving, they’re funny, they’re human, but they also ask a lot of odd questions, and also have quirky moments. With every project I’ve taken on, I’ve given myself a new goal, a new little chip off this giant block of comics.

Boswash, for example (my map comic that I did years ago), was an attempt to understand format. How could I fit a comic into a map? Another goal with Boswash was to work with two colors; the project after that was The Masochists, and I wanted to get better at anatomy; with Rubber Necker I wanted to become a better inker and work on my lettering. Every project has been a little chip off the giant block of comics learning. With the comics discipline, you have to master so many wide-ranging skills, and it’s incredibly difficult. I’ve always been attracted to the idea of doing comics holistically, and have always wanted to be that person.”

Bertozzi has become that person in the past decade; after doing too many comics self-admittedly aimed towards an audience (including The Incredible Drinking Buddies and Filthy Baby), he discovered his holistic voice at the prodding of his roommate in the late ‘90s – cartoonist Dean Haspiel – and has continued through a series of unique and acclaimed projects since.

“He had quite a profound effect on my cartooning,” Nick says, his shoe casually dangling off his foot as he leans back. “Dean said to me ‘Stop drawing comics for an audience, start drawing comics you would like to see.’ I know that seems like such a basic concept, and something a twenty-eight year old should’ve been able to figure out for himself, but it didn’t occur to me until Dean said it. I started making comics that weren’t filtered through what I thought an audience would want, but instead comics that tried to be a direct communication from me to an audience. I have to thank Dean for that…Why he hasn’t been approached to be a full-time editor is beyond me.”

Bertozzi’s most recent project, Stuffed!, is a collaborative graphic novel with Colbert Report writer Glenn Eichler, and another learning project for the artist. Where Nick’s style is normally loose and organic, his work on Stuffed! has the slick and mechanical look of a fifties mainstream comic book or piece of advertising art.

“It was (and I don’t mean this negatively) the most commercial project I’ve ever worked on,” Nick admits. “I was intrigued by the idea of spending 120 pages pulling apart a mainstream script to see how it works. Also, I had been looking at a lot of Alex Toth at the time, and admired how he spotted his blacks. So another goal with Stuffed! was to try to increase the amount of big graphic shapes on the page. Another attraction to Toth was noticing the simplification and economy of his line, economy of style, and the directness of his intent. My challenge to myself was to try to emulate that sensibility, though not his ability, as closely as possibly.
“The first few pages of Stuffed! came out looking exactly like Archie Comics, oddly enough. Even though I love the Archie style (especially Harry Luce from the ‘60s, and his character’s acting) -- it wasn’t the right fit for this story. As I say, this was the challenge to myself for the book, to try on a new coat, and to try on a new set of tools. It’s too soon for me to judge whether I succeeded at it, though some people have said to me that it doesn’t quite look like my normal style and it’s a little hemmed-in. I’ll take that as a learning experience. What I hopefully did manage, on a couple of pages at least, was to amplify the script and make the story a clear and smooth reading experience. This makes me think of Hitchcock and how he viewed storytelling: he didn’t want people to think about the creation of the film, but to sit down and be transported for two hours and into this weird third world that’s not your reality or the one on the screen, but this third reality that’s not quite either. “

Stuffed! is a testimony to Bertozzi’s diversity, as he pares his work down into a more simplified visual style.

“I don’t have a firm tenet that I go by when it comes to format. It’s like there’s a ball, and we’re going to hit it with a bat, kick it, slap it over a net, or hit it with a tennis racket, but it’s still a ball moving across the court.”

Nick’s 2007 graphic novel, The Salon, started as a webstrip on and was transformed into print by St. Martin’s Griffin. The 1907 historically based story follows Georges Braque as he enters the Salon of Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo, where he and Picasso (along with the other members of the group) try to find the murderer who has been violently ripping the heads off of artists. The Salon combines a fantastic murder-mystery with art history, permeating the widescreen panels with Bertozzi’s distinctive philosophies on art.

“I can’t say that I think as deeply as a Chris Ware, Mike Fiffe, or a Josh Neufeld, who are just a few who think about the physical shape and format of a comic, and the reading of it,” Nick modestly confesses. “I think about it, but certainly not to the degree of those guys, who are real solid critical thinkers. With The Salon, for example, it originally ran horizontally so you’d read it, scrolling across, four panels a week. But, I always knew that it would be printed eventually. I thought a little bit about it, and I knew that I wanted to set the book up so that it’d be wider than it was tall and would look less like a regular pamphlet comic that way. Each page of the book was two panels over two panels. And I made it easy on myself, drawing each panel to the Golden Ratio as well as each page itself.

“The Golden Ratio is a Greco-Roman idea of the perfect proportion, based on the human form. It’s a rectangular format used in architecture and many paintings and other works of art throughout the Classical Period as well as the Renaissance.

“I wanted readers to come to The Salon and even if they didn’t like the content, they’d find the format would be pleasing to the eye. If they saw a page of a naked Picasso assaulting Georges Braque, they might be disgusted by that but think, ‘Well, at least the page-layout is pleasing.’ I put a little bit of thought in it but just that much.”

In The Salon, Braque walks in on Picasso, painting furiously in the nude. The awkward introduction is intended to be comical, character-revealing, and historically accurate. The scene, in which nothing sexual occurs, was the catalyst for a monumental court case for comic books: the Gordon Lee case.

Comic book shop owner Gordon Lee, while giving out comic books to children on Halloween 2004, accidentally handed a child an Alternative Comics #2 sampler, which featured those Salon pages in question. After the parents of the child reported the comic to the police, and despite Lee’s offers to publicly apologize for the mistake, he was arrested and charged with “Distributing obscene materials to a minor.”

“I used to be a comics retailer, like Gordon Lee, and I managed one of the Fat Jack’s Comicrypts for a couple of years,” Nick recalles. “We sold pornographic comics in a religious area of Philadelphia. We would put them on the top rack and wouldn’t offer them, and if there was something salacious on the cover for children to see, we’d cover it up and censor it because there were children in the store. There were some times where there was a gray area. I remember there was a cover, for Drawn and Quarterly, where two men were in bed. They were nude, but their genitals were tastefully covered by a blanket. I put it on the alternative genre rack that we had across from the register, about six feet up, too high for the little kids. I had one very good customer, a really nice guy, come in and he lost his cool like I’ve never seen someone lose their cool. He was yelling at me ‘You guys have to take that down, or I’ll never shop in your store again!’ Right across from that was a Vampirella comic on a rack that was three feet high from the floor. Her costume barely covers her nipples.

“To get back to the Gordon Lee case: what offends me so much is that, on that same page that was objected to from The Salon, of Picasso naked, his girlfriend is wearing a robe, but you see her full frontal nudity. That wasn’t what the father objected to, but it was actually Picasso’s nude penis; he’s walking quickly, so his penis is bouncing up, so perhaps they thought he had a hard-on. What offends me about that is it’s okay to see a nude woman, but not okay to see a nude man. I like to think I’m an equal opportunity sexist: I like to draw naked men as much as I like to draw naked women. I don’t draw like Crumb, to masturbate to my own drawing. I’ll say that, unequivocally, I’ve never drawn something sexy, but I do like to draw naked people. Picasso was a nudist, and it was widely known.

“The Gordon Lee case was a mistake, he accidentally gave a kid a preview comic of The Salon, and as a parent myself, I would have expected an apology from the storekeeper, like I had to apologize to the father in my store. I took the comic with the guys in bed down and covered it up so just the title showed but, while I didn’t think it warranted covering up, the community we were in was very religious. I didn’t realize how religious he was, but two men together in bed were unacceptable. I wish I’d stuck up a bit harder for that battle, but the economic reality is that he’d paid money to shop at our store, and even though we wouldn’t have gone out of business from one customer, it was more economic pain than we would’ve been willing to put up with.

“The prosecutor who brought the Gordon Lee case, to my sense was grandstanding and thought she could make an easy case against obscenity. However, people from Rome, Georgia shop in his store, it’s not as though there aren’t customers for ‘obscene’ material. They obviously didn’t want his store in that area. It’s frustrating, and I don’t like when anyone’s righteous or fundamentally on one side or another. In talking about my own experiences as a retailer, I’ve had to cave on my own principles, and that’s not fun.

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund paid Lee’s mounting legal fees, and the case was finally declared a mistrial and dismissed by April, 2008.

“[They] dropped the charges at the end, which means there’s no precedent set in this case,” Bertozzi elaborates. “If they’d taken a trial, I’m willing bet there’s a damn good chance the CBLDF would have won. I think the prosecutor knew that and dropped the charges, and it was embarrassing for them. However, the Attorneys General of Georgia can continue to prosecute using this obscure law, because there’s no precedent for it. I know this is how our legal system works, but using laws like this is very unfair and un-American.”

This October, Bertozzi’s art graces the cover of the ACT-I-VATE Primer, a hardcover anthology featuring new material from members of the webcomics collective. Nick brings out his creation Persimmon Cup, a fantasy-adventure character, a lithe and graceful plant-like woman. Persimmon started life on ACT-I-VATE, in a narrative world of single panel pages.

“I’d been reading some Eisner and had been teaching, and those were concurrent with creating the comic,” Nick says. “Persimmon Cup was another challenge for myself in that I really tried to simplify my process. So I just penciled it and colored it, rather than inking and laboring over the color. I wanted to separate from this craft armor that I always end up wearing while making comics. I was trying to push through that curtain and get to the most intimate connection to the reader, which is this very quick pencil drawing and manipulating it only a little bit. Persimmon Cup is the most fun I’ve ever had working on a comic by far, because of the simplicity and because of the immediate reaction from comment-writers. Sadly, I haven’t been able to work on it for a year because of all the other paying projects. But Persimmon Cup is the comic that people react to the best of mine, ever. The numbers on the site have been astronomically more than I’ve ever gotten in terms of print numbers.”
While another of Nick’s ACT-I-VATE contributions, Pecan Sandy, may have been less successful, the strip is tragically comical, as the cookie-based main character selfishly imposes on his neighbors in the town of Creamyton.

“I had so much fun with that character,” Nick reveals. “He’s such a prick and he’s so awful that he’s so much fun to write and draw, I guess I couldn’t help myself. He’s kind of the character I want to be: somebody that cares so little about people around him that he doesn’t worry about where his next meal is coming from, because he’s going to complain so much that somebody’s going to give him a box of bon-bons just to shut him up.”

After Pecan Sandy’s flower house is blown over and toppled, he wanders into the town square, swooning with illness, and imposes on the goodwill of his neighbors, including Mrs. Peep and Chocolate Chip. A drama queen, Sandy gorges himself on bon-bons, declaring “…I’m still hurting…inside,” accidentally burns Mrs. Peep’s house down, and is sentenced to death by the villagers of Creamyton.

Pecan Sandy was my legitimate attempt at drawing kids’ comics, and I can’t do it, apparently,” Bertozzi laughs. “It’s not in my nature. I want to draw kids’ comics. I think that to get to the level of a Dr. Seuss or Charles Schultz is the apotheosis of art. If children love your stories, then you’ve accomplished art, a true connection. But I always seem to have to draw naked people, or people throwing up, or male-panty shots, one of which you’ll see soon in The Watcher comic that I just drew for Marvel’s Strange Tales. If I could draw a comic or book without doing that, then I will have achieved something. It’s much harder to do a good kids’ book than it seems…

“People look at me and say ‘This is not a kids’ comic,’ and I look at it and go ‘It’s a kids’ comic!’ I guess the story ending with everyone in Creamyton dying has something to do with it.”

Sandy is not only an interesting read, but also a glimpse into Bertozzi’s own influences from his childhood?

“When I was very young, my father often took me to a great movie theater in Providence. He took me to see 2001: A Space Odyssey and Seven Samurai, movies like that. My father liked really good stories, but he really liked the odder stuff. So he’d introduce me to Classics Illustrated comics and then read me R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural to me (this was before I could read so he could leave out the swear words, and cover over the panels where people were doing unspeakable things to each other). So when I was very young he took me to see Aguirre: The Wrath of God, the Werner Herzog movie, and I think that movie in particular had a big effect on me. Seeing a main character so damaged and crazy as the one Klaus Kinsku played, set my storytelling standard at that point from then on.

“So when I did Pecan Sandy, wanting to do kids’ comics—or any of my comics—I come at informed by this Herzogian sense of futility. I’m attracted to these incredibly vain characters, who all have this insidious motivation. Pecan Sandy is not that different from Spongebob, he’s a boob of a character; but what I realize now is that he’s not lovable like Spongebob, the reader loves to hate Pecan Sandy. I didn’t mean for it to turn out like that.”

What might make Pecan Sandy, running around in his classically rendered candy world, so memorable a character is that selfish streak granted by Nick. It’s why Wimpy J. Wellington and J. Jonah Jameson, the epitome of self-centered characters, are so distinctive. Pecan Sandy, it seems, might just need a regular foil to work off of.

Ginger Snap, perhaps?

Bertozzi, while remaining an eternal student of the comic arts, also makes time to teach at the School of Visual Arts and The Center for Cartoon Studies. Ever humble, the soft-spoken artist allows himself to learn from his students:

“[I learned] how to be more clear with my speaking and thought process, and how to argue my position more clearly. The first year I taught, they ran over me like a steamroller,” he laughs. “I had a lot of thoughts about comics and what made good and bad ones, and one thing I’ve come to realize about teaching, (because it’s so subjective) no art teacher can positively say with absolute authority what is good art and what is bad art. What I’ve come to realize in teaching comics is that, since we’re storytellers, there’s only one ideal we can really agree on, especially if you have a comics classroom that goes from the manga kids to the Peter Bagge acolytes, and that is to emphasize clarity. I want to help the students get their intent across.

Read more: Nick Bertozzi's online strips at ACT-I-VATE