Charles Schulz Museum Interview
Jason is the artist-in-residence at the Charles Schulz Museum on June 8th, 2013. Below is an interview conducted by the museum for the visit. Photos in the museum and at Charles Schulz's drawing table courtesy of Brian and Karen Fies.
-Tell us about your cartooning/illustration. Where can we find your work?
I did single-panel gags as a freelancer for a long time and had cartoons in national magazines like Woman’s World, USA Weekend, and others. My work then evolved into larger writing projects, including non-fiction about cartooning. I had a blast editing Mort Walker’s archives and interviewing him for my book, Mort Walker Conversations. His story is so inspiring. Mort sold his first cartoon as a little kid and was the top magazine cartoonist in the country when he launched Beetle Bailey (exactly one month before Peanuts). I also began to develop comic books as a writer. Some of my stories were accepted by Arcana Comics and for Josh Fialkov’s Western Tales of Terror before it was cancelled. I started a website about cold war/space age design and pop culture called SPY VIBE about four years ago, that has seen nearly a million visitors. I get to write about all areas of the arts, including comics.
-When did you start drawing?
When I was about seven years old, my close family friend and unofficial godfather, Chance Browne, handed me a book and said, “Check out my dad’s new strip.” That turned out to be Hagar the Horrible! I then spent a lot of time in the studio with Dik Browne. Like most kids, I started by copying favorite strips, like Hagar and Inside Woody Allen. Dik, Chance, and Chris Browne all inspired me to draw and to write gags. They offered a lot of encouragement and support, something that I try to pass along as a cartoon art teacher. I started cartooning seriously after college and it became a daily routine and life’s mission. Writing now takes up a lot of time, but nothing beats the thrill of seeing a character come to life on paper.
-Where did you get your art training?
Watching the Brownes at work was my best training. I also used cartooning books to learn about tools and techniques. I literally wore out copies of The Lexicon of Comicana by Mort Walker and Cartooning: The Art and the Business by Mort Gerberg. I studied fine art seriously in high school. I became an exhibiting artist in my mid-twenties and showed annually through my thirties.
-What comics did you read as a kid?
Peanuts, Hagar, B.C., Inside Woody Allen- I loved them like other kids love ice cream! And the panel gags by B. Kliban and The Far Side opened up new worlds for me. I was also a big Marvel Comics collector, but the strips were my first and true passion.
-Who are your main influences today?
Now that I’m working on long-form genre stories, my main influence is Richard Sala. I’ve dubbed Richard the Maestro of Macabre Mystery because he does such a great job bringing personal vision to the conventions we see in classic genre serials like Fantomas and Judex, and in strips like Dick Tracy. I also love Richard’s style, which uses a cartoony Charles Addams-like world to contrast some of the suspense and serious themes of his writing. I look to Japanese cartoonist Osamu Tezuka and comic creator Matt Kindt for that same contrast. Others that inspire me now are Buck Rogers, Dick Tracy, and The Phantom. My favorite contemporary strip is Mutts- Patrick’s work shows so much love and perspective about living in the world.
-What is your day job? How do you balance your art and your day job?
I taught cartooning, photography, and filmmaking at The Putney School in VT before moving to teach at Drew School in the Bay Area. After a day of teaching, I mostly have time to create content for SPY VIBE, then chip away on other projects. It’s a challenge to balance everything, but I feel lucky that I get to teach art, which keeps me focused and inspired to create when I get home. My own projects are all labors of love, so I naturally devote my time to them.
-How much time do you devote to drawing each week?
When I was doing weekly submissions as a freelancer, drawing took up most of my time. Now that I have a heavy writing schedule, I spend a few hours working on page layouts as part of the script process. I also enjoy getting in some drawing as I work with my students.
-What are you working on now?
I’m about to finish my first novel, MIKI ZERO, which is about a Japanese fashion model and spy in 1965. Once that book is finished, my new graphic novel, SON OF MONSTER, will pick up pace. Without giving too much away, the comic plays with classic horror and mystery conventions in a whimsical cartoony way to talk about a boy struggling with a dysfunctional single parent. I’m working on the script and page layouts now. To budget time, I’m collaborating with a French cartoonist pal who is helping with ink and color. There is also an anthology of SPY VIBE-inspired short stories in the works, which will be published for Kindle. In the future, I’d like to develop comic anthologies of 1960s spy stories based on the site.
-Is there anything else you would like to add?
I’ll be attending Pulpfest this July, which is a convention in Ohio devoted to classic and popular fiction. Imagine a weekend filled with pulps, big little books, comics, and cliffhanger serials! I look forward to sharing my new novel and anthology with fellow writers and artists while I’m there, and also soaking up that fun pulp imagery as I continue to develop my new graphic novel. I should mention that I also spend time writing screenplays and making films. My work has been recognized and awarded by the Nicholl Fellowships (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences), PBS, Sundance, and film festivals and museums around the world. I sometimes do music projects- I got to make a re-mix for Yoko Ono a few years back!
-What will you bring to share at the Schulz Museum?
I will have copies of my book Mort Walker Conversations, some of my own artwork, and I will bring a collection of original Beetle Bailey, Hi and Lois, Hagar, and other comics to show kids who are interested how comic strips are traditionally produced.