In the third of our TCAF interview series (see Ben Rivers and John Martz), Jesse Jacobs was kind enough to take time out of his schedule to answer some questions by e-mail.
The London, Ontario based cartoonist will have his first work from a publisher debut at the festival. Even the Giants (Adhouse, 80 pp., $10) is typical of Jacobs recognizable aesthetic. With bright blue colours, Jacobs creates an atmospheric Arctic full of fantasy, mystery and misunderstanding.
The art is the highlight. Unbounded by logic and expectations, it’s something to be absorbed rather than digested. As Jacobs mentions in this interview, his art is an extension of feelings and sensibilities and the more that is given into letting go and appreciating the ride, the more one gets from the book.
Jacobs’ comics (Blue Winter Shapes in the Snow, Small Victories, One Million Mouths) have earned him praise, from two Doug Wright nominations in 2008 (Best Emerging Talent, Pigskin Peters Award) to the Gene Day Award for Self-Publishing at the Joe Shusters. He’ll be seated next to the Adhouse table at TCAF and he would like you to say hello.
Even the Giants is your first comics from a publisher and longest work to date. It must be pretty exciting for you to unleash this comic into the wild.
Receiving an advanced copy of the book was a pretty big deal for me. With self-publishing everything is so immediate. The comics would get drawn, photocopied, and stapled and I’d be done. With a publisher the process is so much longer; there are many more steps and production factors that don’t directly involve me, so the book wasn’t really on my mind. But when I finally got to look at the finished product and revisit the comics I was quite happy. It’s an interesting experience to see my comics in this format and I’m excited for people to read them.
Were you initially planning on self-publishing this? I understand that Adhouse publisher Chris Pitzer got a heads-up to check out your work.
Ethan Rilly was kind enough to show Chris my work. I contacted Ethan for some information regarding the Xeric grant he received to produce his book Pope Hats. I figured I’d try to get some funding to put the comic out myself. At that point I was planning to self-publish it but I wanted to do a real nice job so I required more money than I could sensibly invest. Ethan sent the book to Chris Pitzer who offered to publish it. I love making little hand made books but having a real publisher with distribution is a huge asset in so many different ways.
Your works have had some nice design, such as the silkscreened different-coloured covers for Small Victories. What role do you think nice production design has in how people read and perceive comics?
I believe it’s important. I think that interesting production design could save the printed comic book from obsolescence. It’s very possible that with the increasing popularity of web comics the future role of the analogue comic book will be somewhat that of an art object. Personally, I’d just as soon read a comic online if the printed version is simply folded pages with staples. If a book is put together in a creative way it typically encourages an in-depth exploration. You can’t mimic really nice book production design in a digital form. Tangible things like printing techniques, paper choices, cover materials; those things disappear in the digital realm. That’s probably why there is such an interest in books from Drawn and Quarterly and Nobrow; because they’re beautiful. Though I should say that great production design obviously does not compensate for a poor comic.
You seem to focus on atmosphere, not just in the production of your comics, but in your content. To me, Even the Giants is as much about evoking feelings and sensibilities through aesthetic expression as it is about stories and characters. Can you talk about that?
That was definitely the intention of Even the Giants. The book is primarily an exploration of solitude through drawing, writing, and colour. I didn’t approach this book in the way I normally make comics. I knew how I wanted it to feel and to look, and out of that emerged a loose narrative. Numerous voices and viewpoints appear throughout the pages, but they are typically isolated from one another. The stark and desolate arctic landscape is a visual extension of this theme of isolation. I was really attempting to create a book that, like you said, evoked a particular feeling; one in which the ambiance is an integral component of the story.
Two themes that stand out in Even the Giants are nature and the surreal. The impact of nature in the Arctic is straightforward, but does its largely unknown and unexplored setting promote surreal or mythical stories?
I chose to set the story in the arctic for a few reasons. Primarily it was an aesthetic choice; drawing these vast and expansive, empty landscapes was another way I explored these themes of loneliness and isolation. The arctic landscape appears so alien and otherworldly, but also clean and sterile. Some of the scenes I drew look almost like moonscapes. I think that the surreal aspects of the book do work better in such an unexplored environment as the Arctic. The setting itself, like the characters, is mysterious and unknowable. It seems like an accommodating background to feature a story with giants.
Giants have had lots of different kinds of representations, from Goliath to Andre. Was there any version of giants that had a particular influence on you? What got you interested in giants?
I don’t think it was an interest in any particular giant as much as it was an exercise in playing with proportions and spatial context that created these characters. You wouldn’t know that the creatures are giants until you’re given some sort of frame of reference, like a polar bear or a cargo ship. There are a few scenes where they might as well be average size; if you read them as an excerpt you wouldn’t realize the characters are so big. Well, the title of the book would probably tip you off. The arctic backdrop worked really well for this; without buildings, or trees, or something to give the viewer some sort of context, the giants could really be any size. I always liked the book Gulliver’s Travels for exploring that idea. Being a giant is relative to your environment.
Just as you play with ideas of spatiality it also seems to be an exercise for the reader to re-imagine what that context could be. Do you hope to engage readers to actively think about how they read comics in this way?
Maybe a little. When I was drawing the comics my main priority was to keep myself interested and to have fun. Otherwise the thing just wouldn’t get finished. Of course, I want people to like the book, but I don’t remember thinking too much about an audience when I was drawing this. After completion, especially after AdHouse picked it up, I definitely thought more about how the book would be received. It’s a weird comic, and it’s not for everyone, but I had a lot of fun drawing it and I hope that at least a few people (other than me) get some enjoyment out of it.
I got the same sense from your Root Rot contribution, that in a particular setting you wanted to explore your imagination as an extension of your art. Can you tell us about that?
The Root Rot pages were a lot of fun to draw. I find a lot of anthologies can seem kind of scattered and sometimes the work doesn’t flow together as a whole so I really liked the idea of having a visual theme to pull all the different styles together. Most of my stories begin with drawings, so it was a natural process for me to begin with a visual theme. Even the Giants was like that as well, it started with the drawings of the mountains and the giants and the loose story grew around those initial drawings. I get a lot of ideas for stories but simultaneously realize that my drawing ability/style wouldn’t gel with them. The drawings very much inform the story in my comics.
Do you have a particular process to think about and make those drawings?
My process is pretty loose. I try to bring my sketchbook everywhere I go and a lot of my comic drawings begin in there. I find that interesting imagery comes to me when I’m not really thinking about it but rather just doodling and exploring different shapes and patterns while drinking a beer and listening to music. Later when I’m working out a comic scene I tend to look through my sketchbook for potential objects and characters I could use. I don’t work as well if I approach a drawing with particular restrictions, which is sometimes difficult to balance with creating comics.
Yeah, I can see how that would be difficult to balance an almost stream of consciousness style with a sequential medium. Do you ever do things like comics jams, to just improv with other people and see where that goes?
I used to draw with other people, but now it’s pretty much a solo activity. I lived in Halifax and Moncton and both of those places had comic jams that I would regularly attend. I don’t think London has that kind of event, though I think there’s some talk to start one up. There are a lot of good artists around here. I like the social aspect of comic jams but I prefer to draw by myself. I can’t remember drawing anything very good at a comic jam but I always had fun.
And you do a fair amount of illustration for other things like album covers, t-shirts and skateboard graphics. Do you approach those differently? Or is it just a matter of seeing what fits and riffing on it until it works?
That depends on the project. I’m slowly moving away from illustration, though that’s not to say I wouldn’t welcome the work if it was an interesting project. The ideal situation is a client who likes my style and really enjoys what I’ve done in the past and gives me enough freedom to make some crucial aesthetic decisions. There have been a few instances in the past where a client has pushed me in a direction that I normally wouldn’t have gone and something good did come from that, but I typically don’t do my best work when an illustration job comes with a lot of restrictions. Working with Homegrown Skateboards has been enjoyable because the only real guidelines I had to follow were the board dimensions. Those kind of loose projects are approached in a similar way as I do with drawing comics and I have as much fun doing them. As much as I like getting paid for art, I’m presently focusing my energy on making comics and large drawings.
You’ve mentioned comics being a pretty solitary process for yourself, but do you or have you had sources for advice or mentorship?
I have a few people that I run work by, before I do anything with it. My illustrator friend Peter Diamond, who currently works out of Vienna, is always a big help when I’m trying to work out images. He’s got a great eye for composition and colour, and although our work isn’t really similar I trust his opinion. My brother Danny is another person who I get to preview my comics. He’s a writer/poet himself, and a generally critical guy, so he’s great at sussing out bad writing. My girlfriend Jinette, pretty much witnesses my entire process and often adds helpful suggestions. Diana Tamblyn, another comic artist (who lives down the road from me), has previewed some of my comics and given helpful feedback. I’ve also been going for beers with Marc Bell, whose crazy artwork I’ve enjoyed for many years. It’s been helpful to talk with him about production and process.
Last question. In a previous interview in this series John Martz said the Star Trek character he is most like is McCoy. Since we’re talking about mentors and I understand you’re a big Trek fan, which character would you want to be your mentor?
I’m going with the Klingon. I’d get all dizzy on bloodwine and convince Worf to finally knock Riker on his ass.
Thanks for your time and for showing Riker who is boss.