A 55-Minute Interview With Chris Ware: The Full Transcript

In the fall of 2007 I moved north from New York City to begin filming a documentary about the Center for Cartoon Studies, a then-still-fledgling cartoon school located in the ramshackle village of White River Junction, Vermont. Part of what drew me to CCS was an article I’d read that mentioned Chris Ware, one of my all-time greatest artist heroes, had been a visiting professor there in 2005, during the school’s inaugural term. It seemed like an interesting place to be, and I imagined that at some point during the production I’d have the opportunity to interview Chris. As luck would have it, that opportunity came at the very end of making of the film, at which point I was six months pregnant with twins. My co-director and husband, Josh Melrod, went by his lonesome and visited Chris at his beautiful home/studio in Oak Park, Illinois to conduct the interview. Flash forward to now: Tao asked if he could publish the transcript and we said yes. You can see portions of the interview in the film Josh and I made, Cartoon College, which is available on iTunes and all leading VOD platforms beginning June 11th, and on sale for DVD pre-order that same day (delivered starting July 9). More information is at the Cartoon College website.

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CHRIS WARE: So this is basically, in general, going to be about my sad profession?

JOSH MELROD: Largely about that, yes, but I have some questions written down.

CW: Ok.

JM: So, I read an interview you did ten years ago.

CW: OK. (Laughs)

JM: You’d just received an award, like the Guardian First Book Award maybe, and you said something along the lines of “I can’t believe anyone cares about comics.” Do you still feel that way?

CW: Ugh. You know, I don’t remember saying that, and I don’t know what it was in relation to, but certainly comics seem to have taken a seat somewhere in the mainstream and/or literary world in some way or another. I mean, right now, this weekend is the San Diego Comic Con, which is where all the film companies go to announce their hot new multi-million dollar properties, but at the same time publishers like Drawn & Quarterly, my publisher, and even Pantheon go and set up their tables. It’s almost like a vestigial organelle left over or something. Yeah, to be quite frank I try not to think about it too much. I find it kind of fascinating, but—. I guess maybe eight years ago I completely stopped reading about comics or comics criticism or what was going on in the “world of comics,” whatever that is. I hear about it in maybe a grapevine-type way, but I find that if I devote too much time to it I get too depressed or distracted or something, so…

JM: Why does that depress you?

CW: Just as an artist I think it’s not good to think about your position, or your place in the world, or your audience, or all those sorts of things that distract you from just simply focusing on a story or being as honest as you can be on the page. Which is not to say that I don’t think about it. I can’t help but think about it. Because it’s what I do. I just try not to make it a focus. And I don’t—whenever I get asked that, I can’t quite—I have sort of an intuitive understanding of how comics have been absorbed into the world. The Houghton Mifflin anthology and the number of graphic novels that are now being published and the fact that I can say “graphic novel” without cringing anymore is an indicator of something—I’ve just adopted the term “graphic novelist” as the easiest way of explaining what it is I do. Because it seems to have some—if I say I’m a cartoonist that does stories for adults people look at me like I’m a pornographer or something, so—“graphic novelist” seems like it’s here to stay.

JM: That leads me to another question I have. How do you define being a cartoonist? –Not to other people, but to yourself. I mean, how do you define what you do— What does it mean to you, being a cartoonist?

CW: I guess I think of myself mostly as a writer…who draws. Uh, I guess. I think that comics are flexible enough to admit, or allow for, a spectrum, from somebody who is mostly a writer to someone who is mostly an artist. You can be an artist who writes and everything in between. I think I’ve just kind of fallen on that end, from the way that I draw, which is deliberately very iconographic. I think in stories. Well, I think in words and pictures; I’d be lying if I said I just thought in words, but… I just work completely alone. I couldn’t work with anybody else. I couldn’t even have an assistant. Because I change everything as I’m going—even as I’m lettering I’ll change entire phrases. I couldn’t delegate any part of the process to anyone at all. It would ruin it at a certain point. I think that’s one of the real advantages of comics, and I’ve always thought that, that it’s a completely solitary, all-encompassing graphic medium, where you have total control. And not the sort of control where you tell people what to think, what to see, but control in your own aesthetic universe and a way of presenting a story that’s completely your own, so you’re completely at fault if it’s completely terrible.

JM: It’s interesting how common that response is among cartoonists, that feeling of it being entirely yours, entirely your own.

CW: That’s good. I’m glad to hear that. I think for years, I—. If I tell somebody who’s quote “a normal person” what I do, they’ll say, Oh, do you write the stories or do you draw them? Or do you do this or do that? Or they’ll think I’m an animator. And if I say I do both they look at me as if there’s something wrong with me, so it kind of is a little, uh, strange for them, I guess, to think of a cartoonist as an artist, or as someone who’s not a commercial artist. Or a professional employee of some large corporation, I guess, so—.

[Several cuckoo clocks begin chiming simultaneously.]

JM: Could we just hold on for a sec? I want to wait for that to, uh—.

CW: Ok. That was a stupid answer anyway.

JM: How have your expectations for your work changed since your career began?

CW: I don’t think the expectations have changed all that much. I wish I was getting more work done. At least, the ability to get as much work done as I used to in my youth—let me put that in quotes—has changed since my daughter was born. I just wish I could get more done, but the aesthetic aim, I guess, at the risk of sounding pretentious, hasn’t changed very much. I just try to get better at it and more precise at it. And I find that my memory of things I did ten years ago are much more sugar-coated than if I actually look at what I did, it’s like, Oh my god, this is horrible, how could I have ever published this? So… But I think, if anything, I’ve tried to get more finely wrought in my texture of stories, to try to get a little more at the finer weave of experience and reality in the stories, maybe not so blunt and broad—stories that aren’t so pointed, or so crafted, something that feels a little more loose and real. Beyond that I don’t know.

JM: When you first heard about CCS do you remember what you thought? Like, Oh, here’s a school for people who want to do the type of comics I do…

CW: I guess it was… Let’s see. Well, I’ve known James [Sturm] longer than any other literary cartoonist, or graphic novelist, or whatever word we’re gonna use. He and I started corresponding in 1986, I think, when he was in college and I was in college. We would send our stuff back and forth. But he would always surprise me because he would make these big jumps from something he was doing to something else. Like he’d completely disavow what he’d been doing before and then be doing something new. And so it seemed like a natural progression for him to suddenly open up a cartooning school where one had not been open before. It would be something I wouldn’t even begin to understand how to do or put together because being a cartoonist requires such a wide range of study, and it’s so particular to everyone— As an aspiring cartoonist you might be much better read than educated in fine art or drawing, or vice versa. In my own case, I went to art school, so I don’t think I was as widely read as someone who studied English. So I have no idea how one would organize a two- or a four-year curriculum in something like that, other than simply just chaining students to a desk and not letting them leave. Because it takes so much work. The learning curve—I guess that’s the current word that’s used to describe how long it takes to do something—for a cartoonist is almost a decade. I think it takes that long to understand and to master, for lack of a better word, even though I hate that word, everything that’s necessary to tell a mature, adult story. Unless you’re going to be working from things that have been done before you, or working in a particular genre, or maybe lowering your expectations or doing something that’s maybe a little pulpier or simpler. I don’t know…I’m not answering your question, so… just blathering.

JM: No, no. Tell me… If CCS had existed when you were that age would you have been interested in going there?

[Cuckoo clock begins to chime.]

JM: Actually hold on until—. Is that a cuckoo clock?

CW: That is a cuckoo clock. Sorry.

JM: It’s ok.

CW: Sometimes when I hear that in the middle of the night it feels like the fabric of the universe has just ripped open or something. It’s really an alarming sound. Um, but, yeah, I think if James’s school had existed when I was going to college I would have—Although the Joe Kubert School existed and I never thought of going there.

JM: But that’s such a different—I mean, same medium, but a totally different universe.

CW: Right, well, when I started college I knew I wanted to be a cartoonist and I wanted to do serious, thoughtful stories. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I’d been reading RAW Magazine and I’d been reading Robert Crumb’s work and Kim Deitch’s work and I enrolled and I took painting and drawing classes and I took English classes, as many as I could, because I figured that was the kind of thing I needed to study, so, uh—.

JM: And when you went to art school what was the reaction of your peers to the work you were doing?

CW: I mean, this is almost a cliché answer now, but at the time I was in school, in the mid-eighties to the first couple of years of the nineties, it was anywhere from favorable to, um, incomprehensible—they didn’t know why I was bothering with something that was “purely a commercial form.” And I got the same kind of reaction from professors and it could be very painful and annoying to being almost bolstering and almost setting the I’ll-show-you kind of feeling in yourself, so… About what you would expect I guess. I’d think that’s probably a little bit different now. The number of people I’ve met or gotten letters from saying that they want to be graphic novelists now is surprising. I’m not even sure why anyone would want to. Least of all my—My generation was much more inwardly turned than the younger generation, and I’m on thin ice saying this I think, but the younger cartoonists that I’ve met also seem much more happy in their skins and much more socialized than myself and many members of my age group. I think we’re fundamentally fairly solitary people, which is not to say that younger cartoonists are not. I mean, there’s no getting around the fact that you’re a solitary artist if you’re a cartoonist, unless—I can’t even envision a cartoonist working in a large room with other cartoonists, but I don’t know; maybe that’s preferable for a certain disposition.

JM: Well, it’s interesting. It seems like a lot of the students I’ve met at CCS have talked about feeling alienated at their high schools or growing up or whatever. But the fact that they met other people like themselves, at CCS, helped them break down some of those feelings.

CW: Right, well, you’d have to work even harder to feel alienated from that group.

JM: Do you derive any satisfaction from the fact that you did show those kids and professors in art school, that you showed them…?

CW: I don’t know. It would be like being published in Hungary or something. [Comics] is a completely different world. Occasionally I’ll have shows in galleries or be in museum shows or something like that, but I don’t think that what I do—I don’t pay attention to it enough—but I don’t think that what I do necessarily bleeds over into the art world enough to really make any difference. I mean, I wouldn’t—When I say the “I’ll show you” kind of thing, it’s really more of an I’ll show myself. It’s the sense of indignity one gets when you’re in your twenties in school and somebody makes fun of what you’re doing. Because you’re such a raw nerve in your twenties, and everything affects you so profoundly—or affected me I should say, I don’t know, maybe other twenty-year-olds aren’t like this. I was so full of self-pity and ready to be attacked that anything that happened would just emotionally flay me or something. Whereas now, at my current age, I feel my bark has thickened. I still can’t read mean reviews. Those things stick with you in peculiar ways.

JM: Do you get many mean reviews? Seems like most of the reviews of your work I’ve seen are pretty good.

CW: I mean, the only ones you remember are the mean ones, I guess, so… You know, it’s dangerous when one has any, I don’t know, favorable words aimed at them because if you take solace in them, and you start to rely on that as your source of groundedness, and you don’t rely on your artwork as your source of groundedness, then you’re on completely uncertain shaky ground. You’ve just completely lost control. One of the points of making art, personally, is so you can be somewhat firm in your sense of self and sense of what you’re doing. And you should never abrogate that to another person’s opinion, or certainly a critic. Because a critic and an artist are two completely different people. They do not cross over, so…But I feel extraordinarily lucky. This is something I never would have imagined. Even when I entered college and said I wanted to be a literary or thoughtful cartoonist I never thought I would make a living at it. I was perfectly prepared to work in a frame shop or work in an art supply store or do whatever was necessary just to do it on the side and do it on my own. I didn’t have any illusions about having a studio or whatever. I can’t imagine it being any better. I feel extraordinarily lucky, so… Which is why I feel sort of bad sometimes when I get asked how difficult it is to be a cartoonist, and I’ll try to be honest and say that, yeah, it can be very emotionally painful and difficult. And I don’t say that to try to garner sympathy or sound like I’m whining; I say that only for the benefit of younger cartoonists who are starting out and who I presume are going through the some of the same emotional turmoil that I was going through at that age, and finding out how genuinely hard it is to juggle all of these things that are necessary to tell a truthful, honest, human story in pictures on a page, so that they feel maybe a little bit of encouragement if they’re having some problems with it.

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JM: Tell me more about your advice to aspiring cartoonists.

CW: I wish I had a prepared answer for this, but I don’t. I guess it’s just to draw as much as possible, to be as honest as possible, and if you find yourself embarrassed as you’re working it’s probably a fairly good sign. The most difficult tightrope walk you can make is between staying interested in what you’re doing and trying to do something that upsets you a little bit, or surprises you a little bit. Because if you go too far in one direction you end up in a pretentious unfamiliar landscape and if you go too far the other way then you’re too comfortable, and you find yourself repeating what you like and what you read. So if you go to college and you like zombie comics I guess you should focus on that, but I think that as you get older you might start to think, Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this, maybe I should be doing something more about human life. But I think that maybe if you’re too young and you try to do something too naturalistic or realistic then you can lose yourself—it’s very difficult. You have to really listen to your…self to feel what’s right. And that’s even more complicated because sometimes when you find what you think feels right you’re lying to yourself. It’s very complicated. There’s no real way to sort it out. You just have to kind of keep working until—. It’s kind of like you’re in a boat that’s constantly rocking and as you get older it slowly rocks less and less until finally you’ve found out how to keep it rather steady even though you can’t put it into words. I don’t know. I could be creating garbage right now, making the absolute worst stories of my life, but you sort of need a distance to, uh—. That’s the other thing I would recommend, to have an intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic distance from your work. And that’s something that’s different for every artist. But I think it’s important to set yourself apart slightly from what you’re doing, so you can come to it every time with the same sort of distance and unfamiliarity that every reader will come to it with. So that the emotional reaction that the reader has is as much in line with the emotional reaction that you would have.

JM: How do you maintain that distance?

CW: I think partly it’s from the way I draw, partly from the way I write. A lot of it is just rereading what I’m doing, while I’m doing it, hundreds and hundreds of times to try to be as sensitive as possible. It’s sort of like cleansing your mental palate every time you read it. And to try to be as honest as you can be with what is actually on the page, as opposed to what you’re putting in your stories. I found that when I was younger I thought I was putting in a lot more in my stories than I actually was.

JM: How do you mean?

CW: I would go back and reread stories and find that I had thought they were about certain emotional issues, but that they weren’t at all. I’d been thinking these things, but they weren’t actually going into the story. This might only be my problem. I never claimed to be a good writer. I’m sort of a blind find-my-way-in-the-dark kind of writer. But I think there might be some resonance with that difficulty with other younger writers or cartoonists, so…

JM: How do you decide that something you’re doing is successful?

CW: That’s hard to say. It’s sort of an intuitive reaction. Sometimes I’ll look at something I’d done six months before that I thought wasn’t so good and I’ll be surprised and think, well, maybe it wasn’t so bad. Mostly it’s kind of a feeling. If something is bothering you, or nagging at you, that you maybe kind of fudged or were a little bit sloppy about, you look back at it and you get this kind of, yeeesh—just sort of a cringing feeling like you remember something stupid you did when you were younger and you think, Oh, my god, I can’t believe I said that. It’s sort of the same feeling. You just kind of acquaint yourself with that sensation. It can’t be—. Because if you allow your intellect to take it apart you’ll always find an excuse as to why it was fine and why you did this or that. You think, Oh, this connects to this or this. But even if you come up with all kinds of reasonable excuses, if you reread something and it doesn’t feel right, then it could be bad. On the other hand, it might be genuinely strange and new too, so you never really know. That’s why you keep working, so… I think if you really could sort all of these things out and figure it all out you’d wind up doing really boring work, so you have to allow for a large amount of uncertainty in what you do to allow for reality to find its way in. And comics is such a carpentered medium, at least in the way that I approach it, that you have to find a way to let that in to your work. Sometimes in a sneaky way, you almost have to fool yourself a little bit. Again, it’s a flexible enough medium that it can allow for a variety of dispositions or attitudes and sensibilities, which I think is kind of reassuring and good.

JM: Do you have any thoughts on why—I know your work isn’t directly autobiographical, but certainly based on your own experience—why in literary comics so much of the work being published is autobio, or based upon the creator’s personal experiences?

CW: I think it’s just the age of comics as a medium right now. They’re sort of leaving their adolescence. Comics were sort of in their childhood and adolescence through the mid- and late twentieth century, and I think they’ve kind of entered their young adulthood. I mean, that’s kind of a stupid metaphor, it doesn’t really explain anything other than it sounds sort of fancy, but I think there’s a certain truth to it in that, as cartoonists age and become more serious about what they’re doing—just as one reflects upon one’s own life early on to find out where one went wrong or to find some emotional connection—it’s the most readily available material as a young cartoonist. Writing fiction is very difficult when you’re young. Maybe not for some writers. You look at Jonathan Safran Foer and it would completely contradict what I just said, but in my own case it was difficult. But, in my own case, at a certain point I found it easier, and more advantageous, than working autobiographically. In essence what I’m saying is it’s the easiest way to be honest and provide the richest feeling of reality in comics at the moment because the language of fiction is still fairly puerile. And who knows? Maybe cartoons aren’t really well suited to fiction. It depends. There’s an aesthetic connection between the drawing on the page and the reader knowing that what the cartoonist is drawing actually happened to them, and that the emotion that’s felt in the pen line and even in the lettering is connected to those personal experiences. It can create a feedback loop that’s very resonant and powerful. At the same time, I think, my own approach at least, is to work very synthetically and iconically and coldly because I feel I’m writing fiction, which is a synthetic sort of thing. If I did autobiographical stories I wouldn’t draw the way I do at all using a brush and very mechanically and geometrically; I would draw sketchily, the way I do in my diary, because those things actually happened to me, so…I’m just totally derailing every single question—

JM: No, I followed the train there… Tell me about, where would you like to see comics, as a medium, headed.

CW: I guess if anything I just hope that cartoonists are willing to work on ever more serious and thoughtful stories. And as comics advances a respected medium I guess, or at least a more expressive medium, which is more important certainly than being respected, more self-revealing and finely textured work will show up. It takes so long to do a graphic novel though. I mean in my own case I’ve been working years and years on hundreds of pages. In the case of Dan Clowes, his last book I think was eighty pages. And Charles Burns is serializing his next book. I feel like a fool for working on these really long books that I’ll be working on until my daughter is in high school or college or something.

JM: But with your work, at least, you can’t as easily read it in one sitting. I mean—

CW: I guess, that’s the way comics are. You could say the same thing about film. I mean, it takes years to make a film, but it takes a couple of hours to see it. That’s the duty of the artist to, not only put so much information in there, but also connect it in such a way that it really lights up, that all of the sudden it becomes its own thing, to give it a life of its own. It’s difficult. I mean, that’s one of the harder things to figure out in comics is how to make that happen and not just have a bunch of pages with just text and illustrations on them. You want to have it suddenly become its own living thing where—I mean my goal would be where you’re reading the story and all of the sudden it’s almost kind of frightening that it can come alive to you. There’s a power in there, hidden a little bit. I think you highlighted it when you asked about autobiographical comics, like I mentioned when you’re reading an autobiographical comic there can be a moment where all of the sudden it really connects to your heart in a very personal way. It’s difficult to do in fiction—when you’re reading “graphic novel fiction,” for lack of a better word—so that has to somehow play into it.

JM: Talk a bit more about your own education in comics. When you went to school, and you knew you wanted to do literary comics, there weren’t a lot of people doing that at the time, so how did you get there?

CW: Probably the way others of my generation did. In my own case, I read the usual superhero stuff and fooled myself into believing that it somehow represented the adult world, I don’t know. But it was “Peanuts” that really stuck with me as a kid, that really had an electricity and a liveliness to it, and I can still read it as an adult and I don’t feel spoken down to. In high school I started reading underground comics and RAW Magazine and that galvanized me into thinking of how I might become a serious cartoonist. By the time I went to college I was pretty focused, and certainly Art’s Maus was by far the most codified example of a sustained story in comics that was not just what you see is what you get. But what you saw on the surface was the upper crust of an amazingly—I can’t use the word “labyrinthian” because it’s not—but just very complicated and emotionally charged story and web of connections that I never thought was possible in the medium. At the same time I love Robert Crumb’s work. I’ve been reading it for years. I think he’s one of the great living artists. And he sees better than pretty much any other artist on the planet. And I wanted to involve some sense of that, as well as all the other artists in RAW like Gary Panter and Charles Burns, Kim Deitch, Mark Beyer, all those people were at the forefront. I kind of went through a little phase of imitating all of them at one point or another and then finally arriving at what I wanted to do, which is, I guess, a watered down imitation of everybody. Sort of a lame mélange of taking everything in the kitchen and putting it into a really ill conceived stew or something like that. I still don’t feel comfortable, the way I’m drawing, I never have—at a certain point you just become less self-conscious of it. Or try not to think about it, I think, so…

JM: I notice you have no problem calling Art Spiegelman or Gary Panter or Robert Crumb artists, but you hesitated to describe yourself that way earlier when I was asking about what you do.

CW: I don’t know. I guess I’m an artist. I don’t think it’s helpful to think of myself that way. I mean, I don’t trust myself, but I trust Art and Robert Crumb and Gary and Charles and Dan Clowes and Seth. I mean, I know the lies I tell myself, so I have to sort of be aware of those things. I mean, I guess I am an artist; I don’t know what else it is I do. I’m not selling shoes. But I guess I feel more like a writer. I mean, certain writers are artists and certain writers are storytellers, and I would certainly aim towards former—I don’t know that I’ve ever achieved it necessarily, but…

JM: Then how aware are you, and what impact, if any, does it have, that so many of the students at CCS and so many of the cartoonists I’ve spoken with doing this movie look up to you in the same way that you look up to Art and Robert Crumb?

CW: Well, I mean, it’s very flattering. I, uh, I don’t know what to say. That’s very moving, and very honoring. I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m the best role model, that’s for sure. And art is such a weird world. It’s sort of a generational series of permissiveness, like each previous generation gives the succeeding generation permission to do a certain set of things in their work, and then that generation kind of widens it a little bit further. There’s something about making art where you find yourself almost unconsciously sifting through what others have done before you as a way of allowing yourself to do certain things. That’s why I said earlier if you’re embarrassing yourself you’re doing something that may be interesting to a reader or another artist, so we’re all just part of a continuum I suppose.

JM: Why are comics important?

CW: I have no idea really—

JM: Why are comics important to you?

CW: They’re important to me because it’s all I can do. Which is sort of sad. I’m the guy in prison who can only play Monopoly. I can’t write…alone with words. I can’t do it. I feel like I’m skating on oiled glass or something. I just can’t get a toehold. And when I’m just drawing I feel like I’m immediately compelled to try to tell a story. So, at least in my own case, I don’t know if it’s a mental problem or something, but it’s all I can do. I think as an art form, to the reader they have—there’s a one-to-one relationship between the reader and the artist that is very intimate and private and solitary. Like, you don’t read comics in a group. Well, you could, but it might be a little strange. And there’s something about having images on a page come alive that I think is—there’s something kind of beautiful and strange about it. I don’t want to get too pretentious here, but I also think there’s something about the language and structure of comics that directly reflects the way we see and comprehend the world. When we start to learn to read we cease to see. We stop seeing the world for what it is, and our sense of time changes completely, and that’s when life starts to go faster and faster and we lose less and less sense of it. As children when we’re not reading the world, or reading words, and looking at the world, we’re much more involved in it, and days seem to last for weeks. Every single instance of our experience is rich and warm. When we become adults—and part of it, of course, is becoming sexually aware or something and becoming self-conscious, but I think it starts with learning how to read and learning language—we stop seeing the world. Reading comics, the reader is sort of in that same state. It sort of recreates, or focuses, that state of seeing and reading at the same time, that is endemically human. And I don’t know what value that is necessarily, but it sort of takes that tension, or problem, or way of seeing the world, and turns it into a way of presenting artwork, I think. And I don’t think there’s really any other art form that does that.

JM: Do you think of comics as a childlike form—not juvenile—but—

CW: Well, you could, but ironically when you use this way of seeing the world in comics it can almost recreate that childlike feeling. It’s almost like this backwards reciprocity failure or something. Of seeing the world as an adult, but all of the sudden you can get a childlike sense of experience from it. If you can really lose yourself in a comic I feel the cartoonist has been successful…because you’re looking at something happening, but you can realize it’s not really happening on the page. It’s the same thing that happens when one is reading, but it’s a little bit different because you’re still looking at the words. When you’re just reading you’re not paying any attention to what the words look like. Again, it’s kind of a tightrope walk. I don’t know if it’s—I’ve come to some conclusions occasionally where I’ve felt like it was completely doomed and that I’d followed this artistic idea to a point where this is just not going to work. You can only go so far with it, that you can only tell a limited, simplistic story. But then I’ve kept pushing myself and then found that maybe that’s not the case. Maybe you can…I mean, even at just a base level, combining words and pictures you can have four or five or six narrative threads going simultaneously on the same page, which is a little bit more difficult to do with just words I think. I think James Joyce certainly is by far the best exemplar of trying to get at that sense of the morass of consciousness and trying to recreate—I mean, he essentially painted with words on the page. You can read one of his pages, have no idea what you’ve read, but have images in your mind. He actually implants sensory images in your brain as you’re reading, and it’s the closest thing to real experience I think any writer has ever achieved.

JM: I tend to think that about poetry—that’s more prevalent in poetry, for me at least, that line by line everything is—

CW: Maybe that’s what poetry is. But I’m so not acquainted with poetry that I don’t know. But maybe that’s what it is. It seems like every major step forward in literature has been to combine prose with poetry—whatever prose and poetry were at that time, to bring them together in the same way that Leonardo brought together the northern and southern European versions of painting, so maybe that’s what it’s all about.

JM: Going back to—what is it about loneliness and alienation and awkwardness in young people’s lives leads them to produce really meaningful stories ten years later?

CW: It’s probably the natural course of development for most artists. I think you can apply that to any profession. I think in cartooning, maybe since it’s been such a reviled—although maybe not in the past ten years—but certainly when I was a kid it was, so it was something that I fell into where I felt safe and untouchable or something. But I think that thoughtful writers or painters or filmmakers feel the same thing…When you spend time by yourself you’re going to do something with your time and that is more likely than not going to be something creative, so you become better at it than people who are getting really good at playing sports or drinking or having fun with each other, which I never really learned how to do very well, so…um, I’d say it’s a fairly standard way of dealing with it in America. Maybe it’s different in Europe.

JM: What do you enjoy about your work?

CW: Jeez. Being done with it I guess. Enjoy is not really the word. I don’t really look for enjoyment. I don’t know what the word would be. It’s not like I sit at my table and cackle to myself. I guess sometimes I feel like I’ve brought the story somewhere where I didn’t expect it to go. And that’s kind of a satisfying feeling, but it lasts maybe seven or eight seconds so I’m not working for that reason. The end is really the book, and to try to make a book that is as richly textured and dense and inexplicable as real life is. Hopefully. And I feel I’ve only ever done that once, so I just keep trying…

JM: Meaning you’ve only had that feeling once?

CW: Yeah, I think only one book I’ve had that feeling and everything else falls short. But you keep trying. I mean, it’s not wildly enjoyable. It’s not like I feel like I can hardly wait to sit down and work. Though I do enjoy doing it—enjoyment is not really the word. I thought of this many years ago and I realized, you don’t really use the word “entertainment” to describe Beethoven’s music; it’s not really about that; it’s not really about being amused; it’s about something that makes being entertained or being amused seem unnecessary, as if it doesn’t even apply. I mean, that probably sounds horribly pretentious, but…

JM: No, I think it makes sense. When you’re working—I was saying this to Tara the other day—I came downstairs after reading something I’d written and was like, “Why am I doing this?” Like, “Why am I doing this to myself?” But then the next day I was back at it, and there seems to be something about doing creative work that seems intrinsically…worthwhile. I mean, to me.

CW: Yeah, early in my twenties I read a lot of Tolstoy and Flaubert, and the letters that Flaubert wrote to George Sand; he just hated, hated working, to the point that he could barely do it, but he couldn’t not do it too. Because he knew what he was doing was unlike anything anyone had done before. And Tolstoy said that writing conversation to him he found utterly, unspeakably horrible—I’m paraphrasing, but you know. You just keep doing it.

JM: So if you weren’t successful you’d still be a cartoonist.

CW: I think so, sure. I’m not even sure to what degree one is successful. I’m able to do what I do and I don’t have to worry about it, so in that way I feel I couldn’t have asked for anything better. I think, trying to be artistically successful on one’s own terms is what one should really aim for, but, yeah, even if I had a regular nine-to-five job I would still draw comics.

JM: When you were describing being frustrated with the medium, its limitations—when you’re at that low point, what pushes you?

CW: (Laughs) Deadlines. Feeling like I’ve got to finish it. Feeling like I’ve got to get beyond it. It used to happen all the time to me and I used to rip up my drawings, and then I’d have to completely start over. Which is an even worse feeling, but that doesn’t happen any more really. There’s, uh—you just become a little more even keeled within yourself. It can be very frustrating, but at the same time those moments of frustration, if you can step back from them, are actually some of the most important moments in your artistic development—not just in the development of the specific thing you’re working on. Because you know that you’re up against something that is either not working at its most base level, or is somehow frustrating you, or is revealing something to you about your writing, or the story, or the person that you are, that you’re trying to overcome. So, if you can somehow flip that around and see it as a positive thing, you can take a certain kind of energy from it…if I can sound all California about it. I think one of the best things one of my art teachers ever said in undergraduate school was that even if somebody criticizes something very pointedly, at least you know that it got to them—that they’re focusing on some aspect of it. That is really the only level at which criticism can be even mildly useful, I think, to an artist. Unless you’re an artist who takes a lot of drugs and is out of his mind with the worldly…the earthly delights or whatever, then it might behoove you to maybe listen to somebody who’s not hammered all the time or something.

JM: Well, when you say criticism you’re meaning, not from a critic, but—

CW: In this case we were discussing the pain of the critique system that the art schools in America revolve around and, I can’t remember how it came up, but it’s painful when you’re in your teens and twenties to have people talk about what you’re doing—because you have no idea what you’re doing. So it was just useful for the teacher to articulate it in that way, that it’s not about whether it’s good or bad but just about what somebody saw or reacted to. And it helps you focus your thinking a little bit more.

JM: What have you learned from being a cartoonist?

CW: That’s an interesting question. Nobody’s ever asked me that before. Huh? I have absolutely no idea—I haven’t learned how to draw. I guess I could say I’ve tried to learn how to write, but that doesn’t do you any good. I guess I’ve tried to learn how to be more truthful. I’ve said this before, but I do feel that comics, at least at this point in our social structure—I can’t think of a less stupid word—they’re such an accessible medium that the reader doesn’t really feel any clout of theory that he or she has to penetrate in order to understand a story. Essentially the relationship between the reader and the writer is honest, and if you read a comic strip and you don’t like it you just assume the writer is an idiot. You don’t blame yourself for not understanding the theory of writing or the theory of painting or something. So that, I think, is maybe its greatest advantage and I try to hang on to that somewhat. I try to be as honest as possible and if it’s bad it’s my fault, it’s not the reader’s fault. TC mark

This post is part of Tao Lin Day. To read more posts in this series, click here.

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