The Cartoonist Behind Gold Star Spills His Guts

by BK Munn
John Martz is a man of many talents. Cartoonist, illustrator, animator, blog pioneer, he does it all. As the creator of the Drawn! blog, he has spent the last decade as a tastemaker and curator of the best in classic and cutting-edge design and illustration work, all the while working on establishing his own career as an illustrator and cartoonist. A number of recent noteworthy self-published comics projects, including It’s Snowing Outside, Excelsior 1968, and Heaven All Day, for which he won a Shuster Award in 2011, have brought him into the first tier of critically-acclaimed younger cartoonists in North America. I had the pleasure of talking to Martz and his wife Lindsay over dinner at TCAF this past May and when the publication date for his new book drew nigh, I asked him to elaborate on a few of the things we chatted about in May for an email interview.
Gold Star is a smart-looking book, filled with the kind of smart, funny cartooning we’ve come to expect from Martz.
Sequential: In Gold Star, your character travels to a comic book awards ceremony, with hilarious results. Is this a true story? How much of the comic is based on your own experience of award shows? For instance, you’ve been nominated for several Wright Awards and also served on the Wright’s jury. Any connection?
John Martz: I should hope anyone who’s read the comic would not think it’s a true story! Also, it’s funny you assume it’s a comic book awards ceremony — I made a conscious effort not to offer any details in the story in regards to what the ceremony was, or what the award was for. That said, while the character isn’t supposed to be a cartoonist, and the story itself is entirely fictional, the setting of the story is indeed based on my experiences traveling to the U.S. for the National Cartoonists Society’s Reuben Awards weekends, particularly the first time I went in 2005 when the awards were held at a resort hotel in Arizona.
S: The title Gold Star seems like a comment on infantile nature of awards.Do you really see awards this way? How much of our adult awards are little more than the gold stars we may have received from a teacher for doing good work and colouring inside the lines as a child?
JM: No, I think you’re reading too much into the title. I’m not trying to make any commentary about awards, and certainly I’ve always been honoured and appreciative the few times I’ve been nominated for something. The setting of an awards ceremony came out of the writing process. It fit the structure I wanted to use of juxtaposing two different timelines and two different cartooning styles, and it allowed me to draw from my own experiences for details. I simply chose Gold Star as a title after looking up the word “award” in a thesaurus. It seemed like an appropriately funny title, considering the events of the story, and it suggested a simple, obvious design for the award statue itself.
S: When we spoke at TCAF, you mentioned how joining the National Cartoonists Society and becoming involved in their awards process was something of a watershed for you. Can you talk about that experience?
JM: It wasn’t so much being involved in the awards process as it was simply being welcomed into the fold of the NCS. I studied graphic design in school and was working at CHUM Television doing broadcast graphics for stations like MuchMusic and Space. It was a good job, and it allowed me to do the odd pieces of illustration and animation, but I still fantasized about being a capital-c Cartoonist. I didn’t know anything about the indie comics scene, webcomics were still pretty nascent, and newspapers weren’t yet dying, so it was still possible to hang on to that childhood dream of doing a newspaper comic strip. I frequented a message board called the Wisenheimer which, in the pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter days, was this remarkable mix of NCS members and amateurs.
One day the chair of the Canadian chapter posted an open invitation to their Christmas party, so I went. I met cartoonists like Jay Stephens, Sandra Bell-Lundy, and Lynn Johnston, who were all members of the Canadian chapter, but also Rick Stromoski who was the NCS president at the time, and Dave Coverly, who draws Speed Bump, whom I believe was the NCS membership chair. They both made the trip to Toronto for this party, along with a few other American cartoonists. It was a relatively small party of cartooning professionals, and I was this naive young kid in a Charlie Brown t-shirt who lacked just enough self awareness to show up to this thing. But everyone was welcoming, and encouraging when I embarrassingly showed off my little portfolio, and both Rick and Dave encouraged me to apply for membership. I grew up worshiping the comics page, so just the idea of joining the NCS was intoxicating and irresistible. Again, this was before the real boom of webcomics, and now the NCS is far more strict about who can join these days, so I really was just in the right place at the right time. That Christmas party really kickstarted my cartooning career because I had all these pros basically giving me permission to be a cartoonist, and I quit my job about a year or so later.

S: Gold Star is published by Box Brown’s Kickstarter-financed Retrofit line. How did you learn about Retrofit and how did the book become part of the Retrofit “family”? How do you see yourself fitting in with the line? Any affinities with particular artists? Do you know any of your fellow Retrofit artists?
JM: Box e-mailed me (and all the artists) before launching the Kickstarter, describing the project, and asking if I’d be interested in contributing one of the titles. It was really as simple as that. I like Box’s comics and his enthusiasm, and he was going to do all the legwork of printing and distributing the books, so it seemed like a no-brainer. I think all the artists do work that is unique to their artistic vision, which makes for a diverse collection. None of the Retrofit books have been alike, which is great. James Kochalka was a big influence when I discovered American Elf, and I have several sketchbooks full of terrible diary comics which shamelessly stole from his style and voice, so it’s an honour to be part of project alongside him. At the time of Retrofit’s launch, I think I had only met Chuck Forsman before, but I’ve since met Brendan Leach and Joe Decie at TCAF. All three of these guys are about as nice as they get, and I’m a fan of their work as well, particularly Joe Decie whose autobiographical-slash-unreliable-narrator work is truly special.
S: Many of your characters seem hapless and disaster-prone. Is this how you see yourself or is it just funnier to write and draw about tragedy? Are you just a depressed pessimist?
JM: I’m definitely a klutz, and I do see myself as a bit of a hapless character sometimes. But I think that’s all part and parcel of having a good sense of humour about one’s self. My characters are autobiographical in that I’m magnifying my own weaknesses and foibles but removing any measure of self awareness. But I also am just trying to create the kinds of stories and characters I’m drawn to — the Charlie Browns, the Woody Allens, the Wile E. Coyotes.

the robot with a pear-shaped soul from Martz’s Machine Gum
S: I really enjoy the short one and two-page robot strips that you serialize on your website and publish in print as the Machine Gum books. Can you talk abut this series? How much of the strip is formalist exercise and how much is free association. It seems sometimes like you are exploring the limits of your own taste and physical comfort zones. Or is that just my reaction?
JM: Thanks. They’re all drawn in a sketchbook, which I bought to force myself into creating comics that weren’t precious. So much of my work is done digitally with my left hand hovering over my Cintiq’s undo button that I felt it was important to re-learn how to embrace mistakes. They’re obviously a direct descendant of the robot character in Heaven All Day, whose pantomime strips I had such a fun and effortless time drawing.
It’s probably equal doses of formalist exercise and free association. It’s pure joy drawing them, because I can go through the motions of drawing comics without having to do much thinking or planning. Most times I start drawing the first panel without knowing where it will take me. And the world they take place in has a very broad internal logic, and a fairly non-existant set of rules, so I can do pretty much anything. It’s great exercise, and I’ve learned a lot about my own process, and gained a new sense of confidence in regards to the language and the rhythms of the comics page.
And yes, as abstract and improvised as these strips tend to be, there are definite themes that tend to repeat, which include anxiety and neuroses and body image and self awareness.

S: Speaking of taste and discomfort, your other ongoing comics project is the collaborative jam strip Team Society League, which you do with cartoonists Aaron Costain, Zach Worton, and Steve Wolfhard. How did you start working with these three and how did you evolve the cast of characters you use in the strip? Can you describe the TSL process?
JM: Aaron and I met at Canzine one year, and we became friends and started tabling at shows together. When sales were slow we’d pass our sketchbooks back and forth and draw jam comics, as I think a lot of cartoonists do. We began to have such fun, we each bought sketchbooks devoted just for our jams. I met Zach because he worked at the Beguiling, and I suggested he come over one night to draw with us. We named ourselves Team Society League because we were trying to come up with words to describe a collective, like the Chicago-based Trubble Club, and the words team, society, and league were on the list, and it seemed perfect to just use them as-is. Steve and I knew each other online only casually, but we became close friends when he moved to Toronto a few years ago, and he became a natural addition to the team.
The process is pretty standard for jam comics. They are entirely improvised panel by panel. I’ll draw a panel, and pass the page to Aaron. He’ll draw the next panel, and pass it to Zach, and so forth. 99% of the time the comics are all dialogue-free, and like most jam comics, the humour tends towards the blue. But as juvenile as they get, they are actually great cartooning practice because we’re all consciously trying to create a solid, wordless gag within the confines of the limitations of that process. I also like it because it exercises the parts of my brain that like puzzles and improv comedy (but without having to get on stage in front of a crowd).
There was never any real cast of characters starting out, but one night I drew this little round guy picking up a penny off the ground, and in the next panel Zach drew him sticking that penny up his butt. It’s just the kind of thing that a bunch of grown men who should know better find hilarious after a few beers. This little guy would eventually keep popping up now and then, and we’d draw him holding a plunger, or riding a unicycle, or in any number of suggestive poses, and it would be this ridiculous and childish battle of wills to prolong the inevitable insertion. It was Aaron who named him Georges when we were in Montreal one weekend for Expozine, and he suggested that he have a French name. I think it was Steve who came up with the idea that there was more than one Georges, that there could be an entire village of them like the Smurfs. So he truly is a collaborative creation, and he’s taken on a life of his own.

S: You’ve been putting out self-published TSL collections for years now but Koyama Press is publishing a large omnibus called The Big Team Society League Book of Answers this September. What can we look forward to with this collection and what can you say about working with Annie Koyama? Are you in any way ashamed to be publishing these comics in such a prestige package?

JM: Well first off, working with Annie Koyama is a joy. In addition to being enormously generous and encouraging, she has truly done something special here in Toronto with the small community of weirdos that she has brought together. Cartoonists tend to be solitary creatures — you don’t get good at this without a lot of time spent alone at the drawing table — but in addition to her publishing efforts, Annie has fostered a real sense of community and kinship not just for the artists she publishes, but for the Toronto indie comics scene at large.
For this Koyama TSL book, we wanted to up our game (as much as one can up their game drawing butt jokes). Annie’s only requirement for the book was that it be all new material. We tend to draw in our sketchbooks with whatever tools we have handy, and the results are always appropriately sloppy. But this time around we all used the same pens, and used measured panel guidelines, and really made an effort to draw these strips knowing they’d be published in a nicer-than-photocopied format.
As someone who is trying to foster an early career as a children’s illustrator, I am careful about associating my name with Team Society League on my own website, and on the TSL website, out of fear of the odd Googling parent. Because although it may be tame by jam comics standards, TSL is still not exactly kid-friendly.
But I am not the least bit ashamed of this book. Just the opposite. Jam comics have a bad reputation because most jam comics are bad, or are just exercises in gross-out oneupmanship (and we’re certainly guilty of that, too). But I am very proud of The Big Team Society League Book of Answers. I think it’s better by miles than anything you’ve seen from TSL yet, and I think it really shows that jam comics can be a valuable form and a honed skill when the cartoonists are truly collaborating, and learning how to time the perfect punchline, and be consistent, and not just trying to see who can draw the grossest penis. There’s no I in Team Society League. Except for the one.

S: I first became aware of you through your contributions to the extremely popular Drawn! blog. How did Drawn! come about and what’s new there lately that you are excited about? Does it still excite you? How do you work with the other contributors? Do you think of yourself more as an illustrator or cartoonist?
JM: I launched Drawn in 2005. I wanted to see a collaborative link blog similar to Boing Boing but be focused on the things that interested me: comics, animation, and illustration. The animation-specific Cartoon Brew existed, but there wasn’t anything that was all-encompassing. So I decided to make it myself. I was still working as a designer, and not even a full-time illustrator myself yet, but I contacted a few people I knew online, including Matt Forsythe, Ward Jenkins, and Luc Latulippe, and basically asked if they wanted to be a part of something like that if I built it. I wouldn’t have the balls today to ask a bunch of professional artists if they wanted to blog for free, but I didn’t know any better back then. We were somehow linked by Boing Boing on the day we launched, and because there was nothing else like it at the time, that pretty much sealed our fate, and it became popular pretty quickly.
I launched the site partly because, like crashing that NCS Christmas party, it was a way of shoehorning myself into a world that I wanted to be a part of. I wasn’t a working illustrator or cartoonist at the time, just an eager amateur, but almost instantly I had a site that people saw as an authority. It certainly helped shape and launch my career as much as anything I’ve ever done, and today I’m busier doing actual illustration and comics, so I don’t have the time for it like I used to. Also now that I’m moderately successful, I don’t have the same impetus to keep it going the way I once did. I faked it til I made it, you could say.
But also, that site launched almost 8 years ago. Blogging was still the “new thing”, and there wasn’t Twitter or Facebook yet. Twitter has really ruined me for blogging. Sharing a link on Twitter in the blink of an eye simply is simply no comparison to the amount of effort it took back then to format a blog post, and think up a title, and resize images, and moderate spam comments, and the whole deal. A few years ago, I switched the blog from WordPress to Tumblr, which was the best thing because it dramatically decreased the amount of time it took to update and maintain. And Drawn was always sort of a Tumblelog before there even was a Tumblr, and I think if Tumblr didn’t exist and offer such an effortless way to update and share images, Drawn wouldn’t be around anymore. I just don’t have the time or energy to maintain a website the way I did when I was 25 and neither self-employed nor married, and I certainly couldn’t expect the other contributors to keep pace. Certainly the submissions pile is a slog to maintain. I don’t know how the folks at Boing Boing or someone like Tom Spurgeon does it. Sometimes the only way to stay sane is to just nuke the whole lot. I get the occasional e-mail that starts with some vague compliments like, “I love your work, especially ,” which is quickly followed up by, “oh hey, that reminds me, I have this Kickstarter campaign…” That sort of thing gets tiresome, but for the most part it’s still enjoyable to sort through all the link submissions to find that odd diamond in the rough.
As for the other contributors, there isn’t much of any real collaboration or editing on my part, and there is certainly no expectation or quota. I give the contributors free reign to post what they want, when they want, and I don’t really need to babysit or play gatekeeper. The contributor list has evolved over time, but it’s always been a group of artists who are naturally keen to share links and promote other artists, and to connect with their community, so I give them the keys to the car and let them go nuts. I’m grateful for the time and energy they have put into the site, and continue to put into the site, and I hope being a part of it has been as valuable for them as it has been for me.
I hear from people all the time that they still love Drawn, or from artists who truly appreciated being linked to, and that means a great deal. I’m happy to still have the site as an outlet for sharing things, even if, in 2012, it is but one Tumblr among millions. If people are still getting something out of it 8 years later, even as it has morphed into something different than when it started, then that’s enough of a reason to keep going.
As for cartoonist vs. illustrator, I do an equal amount of both, so I can’t say I’m more of one than the other. That said, illustration pays better than comics, so if it’s a question of what do I write on my tax return, or what do I tell people I do for a living when I meet them at a party, then it’s illustrator.

S: Your latest gig is a regular weekly illustration series/comic strip for the Saturday Globe and Mail. It’s kind of a cross between political cartoon and pop culture parody graphic. How did that come about? Who comes up with the subject matter each week?

JM: It’s bi-weekly, with the great Graham Roumieu doing it every second week. Maybe two years ago Jeet Heer asked me if doing a regular feature for the Globe was something I’d be interested in. I guess he was asked by someone at the Globe for recommendations. I was flattered that Jeet would think of me, and I told him I’d be happy to, and had him send them a link to my website, knowing full well that there was nothing on my site at the time that would give an editor any indication I was capable of such a task. I didn’t hear back, and wasn’t all that surprised.
But last year I got the call to fill in for Graham last minute when he was on vacation, so someone must’ve remembered me. I filled in for Graham a few times, and I guess I did a good enough job that we now trade off on the feature every second week.
I come up with the subject matter myself. I usually give my editor a few suggestions based on news stories from the past week, and some rough ideas of how I plan to make a comic out of it. They’re mostly hands off, so I get a great deal of freedom. Usually they only correct me for spelling or style, but occasionally they’ll kill a joke that might be offensive, ill-timed, or — heaven forbid –just not funny. It’s been a great opportunity and a great challenge — I’m forced to keep up on current events far more than I ever have been, so it’s been a blessing just for that. It’s embarrassing to think how little I kept up with the news when it wasn’t a part of my job. And it’s quite tough to be topical and funny within the time constraints. It’s certainly the kind of work I would never have done on my own, so it’s been very rewarding.

S: I liked that animated robot video you did for Jim Guthrie. Do you have any other books in the pipeline? Current projects?

JM: I have two kids’ books coming out next year, one a Halloween-themed book with Kids Can Press, who published my first picture book, Dear Flyary, written by Dianne Young. The second is a comic/picture-book adaptation of Abbott and Costello’s routine Who’s on First? with Quirk Books. I’m also working on something with the UK publisher Nobrow, which should hopefully debut at TCAF next year.