In the second of our TCAF interview series (see Ben Rivers here) we had the chance to speak to Toronto-based cartoonist and illustrator John Martz.
Martz was nominated for a Doug Wright Award last year and was one of the many Canadian recipients (5!) in the last round of Xeric awards. With the money from the Xeric foundation, Martz has self-published his latest comic, Heaven All Day. He is also a part of the comics jam group Team Society League comics alongside Aaron Costain, Steve Wolfhard and Zach Worton and contributes to the super popular Drawn.ca blog.
In spite of all this busy-ness, John took some time to answer questions about what winning the Xeric award was like, why experimentation is important for growth as a cartoonist and what Star Trek character he is most like.
In addition to having Heaven All Day at TCAF, he will also be co-selling the first Team Society League Omnibus in hardcover and a small amount of Star Trek Trexels prints. These prints sold out very quickly online (under two hours?) so you might have to swarm his table in a huff of anxiousness on the Saturday morning of TCAF to get yours.
So you recently received a Xeric Grant for your latest comic, Heaven All Day. How did you react to the news?
Well, I thought I had a pretty good shot at getting the grant. I had never applied for a grant before, and I didn’t know how many applicants there were, or who my competition was, but I was proud of the work I submitted.
The date when applicants were supposed to hear about their applications came and went. I was disappointed, but just accepted the fact that I didn’t make the cut. A month later, an acceptance letter arrived in the mail, and it was postmarked on the day it was supposed to have been, a month prior. So I was particularly surprised, and quite pleased.
That’s a lot of anticipation. Did you do something to celebrate?
No, not really. The MoCCA comics festival in New York was fast approaching, and I wanted to have something new at the show, so I had to quickly put the funds to use to get the book printed in time.
How was MoCCA? What was the reception to Heaven All Day?
MoCCA was fun. Part of the fun of these shows is socializing and hanging out with people and friends I only see once or twice a year. It’s difficult to gauge the reception of the book apart from sales numbers, but I think it was successful; I just about sold out of everything I took with me.
And it seems like your Star Trek Trexels print was a big hit too. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Well that began with me goofing around in Photoshop, and trying to treat pixel art as an exercise in cartooning, abstraction, and character design. I started drawing the cast of Start Trek: The Next Generation because it was a perfect cast of characters, each with a distinct look — the bald one, the bearded one, the blind one, the redhead, etc. I could easily distill their likenesses down to the low, low resolution of these tiny video game sprites, and still retain the key visual information necessary for recognition.
I posted a few of them online, and the lovely Anne Koyama got in touch saying she wanted to do something with them, whether it be a t-shirt or a print, under the Koyama Press name. So I got to work and just drew more and more characters until I had a few hundred done.
Your friend Aaron Costain tells me the Star Trek character you’re most like is Geordi La Forge. Why do you think he went with Geordi and which one do you think you’re most like?
Ha ha, Geordi? That guy has no personality, just a hairclip on his face.
I think I’d have to go with Dr. McCoy. He’s got more heart than Spock’s stone cold logic, but he’s not as balls-out as Kirk. Somewhere grounded in the middle, and kind of grumpy.
Getting back to your Star Trek pixel art being an exercise in cartooning, abstraction and character design, it’s something you seem to enjoy exploring. I find it interesting how you delve into it through both technology like pixel art and also old-school illustrators that you frequently post on Drawn. Is it a way of being familiar with all the tools and techniques of design and cartooning at your disposal?
I think so, yeah. I love process and the “how” of cartooning and design. And I am especially drawn to artists and techniques that favour simplicity, abstraction, sparseness, and brevity . It’s a difficult thing to master, for sure, so studying it and trying new techniques is all part of figuring out how to do it right, and how to incorporate it into my own work.
Pixel art in particular has been a rewarding exercise because, especially at extremely low resolution like the Trexels, I’m working purely with the visual information in a tiny grid, and I’m stripped of things that are easy to get hung up on like drawing ability, line quality, and whether I drew someone’s nose just right. It’s really about design and iconography, and has taught me to better distinguish the difference between cartooning as a language, and cartooning as an art form.
How do you distinguish the difference between cartooning as a language and art form? By language are you referring to the universal aspects/common structure with agreed upon meaning and the art is where individuality emerges?
I guess I should clarify. By “art form” I mean the surface qualities and the drawing itself, and by “language” I mean using those drawings to communicate.
I have been reading comics and drawing my whole life, but I didn’t really start drawing comics seriously until about 4 or 5 years ago. I would hear cartoonists say, “the only way to learn to draw comics is to draw comics,” and it’s advice I probably dismissed, being a little cocksure, and thinking I had it all figured out already. Like a lot of young cartoonists I thought I could skip to the head of the class without doing the work just because a) I could kind of draw, and b) I really, really liked comics. But then I started drawing comics and they were terrible.
So I’ve learned there’s a big difference between being a comics fan who can draw, and being able to draw and write comics with clarity and intent and thoughtfulness. It’s not enough to just be able to draw okay, and throw those drawings into panels with some speech bubbles — just as knowing how to write the alphabet and make words out of the letters doesn’t make you a good writer. So my comics output so far has been small, and mostly formal exercises in understanding and learning how to effectively utilize comics as a written language.
Drawing wordless comics has been a valuable pursuit because I have to actively think about what I’m trying to convey to the reader, and how I can do it as efficiently and effectively as possible.
I’m only starting to understand how the drawings—the marks on the paper—are simply the language’s typography: symbols designed to be read and to convey information. I suppose in this analogy, cartoonists are writers who not only have to write beautiful poetry, but they also have to typeset the page by hand. And design their own typeface. And on top of it all, they are using an open source language—learning, borrowing from, adding to, and changing the lexicon as they go. It’s tough work, and a far cry from being able to draw Garfield from memory.
You touch on the idea that comics is laborious and involved – (cartoonist as typesetter, designer, artist, writer and so on) and it is also an open source language, a changing lexicon. Is that a double edged sword; that the amount of work you put into comics in controlling each step is what enables you to experiment formally in ways that are limited by just using type?
Well, I love to experiment with form and play around with the possibilities that comics allows. And certainly I’m still learning, and have only scratched the surface. But yes, one downside is that because there are so many aspects to comics-making that have the ability to be looked at in a real considered way, that it’s a labourious and seemingly infinite process.
So I like giving myself restrictions which cuts down on the amount of crippling decision-making, and actually fuels creative problem-solving—things like restricting myself to certain colour palettes, panel grids, wordlessness, etc.
So if these exercises help you develop your style do you think experimentation will be less important to you down the road? Or do you feel that forcing yourself to challenge creative assumptions like you do through restrictions and exercises is an ongoing process regardless of your stage as a cartoonist?
I think it just becomes a natural part of the creation process. You try new things, and when it works, it sticks, and when it doesn’t work, you try something else. It’s kind of Darwinian I suppose. I am working on my next story, and each part of the process is something I consider in relation to the work I’ve done in the past — I think an artist’s body of work, as a whole, is always a work-in-progress. Each new piece is a successive iteration building upon the previous works’ successes and failures.
Can you tell us about your next story?
It’s another science fiction story like Heaven All Day, or rather, like Heaven All Day it’s a story that uses science fiction as its backdrop, but is ultimately about more personal themes.
Now earlier Aaron mentioned that the Star Trek character you’re most like is Geordi. But since it’s your interview, you get the last word. What character is he most like?
On that note, thank you for this interview with Spock’s logic and Kirk’s ballsiness, McCoy John.
Thanks, David! It was a pleasure.