Critical Questions: Joseph Remnant
A young cartoonist on collaborating with the great Harvey Pekar.
Joseph Remnant is a rising star in the alternative comics world, the author and creator of the indie Blindspot as well as co-collaborator on two of the late Harvey Pekar's final projects, including the critically-acclaimed Harvey Pekar's Cleveland. Not content to rest on his laurels, he spoke with us about his upcoming comics, his relationship with Pekar prior to his death, and what it's like to be compared to R. Crumb.
CM: Was Harvey Pekar's Cleveland the first time that you collaborated with another writer? Can you compare that experience with illustrating your own ideas?
JR: I had illustrated a couple of one-page stories with other people, but this was the first time doing it extensively. Just being the illustrator allows you to just focus on drawing, which is kind of nice in a way. My drawing improved a lot over the course of drawing the book, and when you're just drawing, part of your mind is free to just listen to good podcasts and music, which makes the process a lot less painful. When I'm writing, I need complete silence, and I really have to focus on letting my mind enter this subconscious world where I'm desperately trying to grab something useful out of this pool of floating ideas. Then you have to make sure the story flows and is entertaining in some way. I'm much more emotionally invested in it, and it's much harder, but also much more rewarding. As far as collaborators go though, Harvey was great. He left almost all of the visual side of things completely up to me, and he didn't micro-manage at all. I couldn't work that way, unless somebody paid truckloads of money, of course.
Harvey Pekar's Cleveland, of course, is one of the author's final projects. On your blog, you mention that you were in the midst of working on it when he passed away in 2010. Did you have a lot of interactions with Harvey about the book prior to his passing? What were those like?
I had a lot more interaction with him before we started working on the book, but Harvey did get to see about the first 20 pages and he seemed really happy with what he saw. His main concerns were things like I'd drawn one of the baseball players right handed when he was actually left handed -- things that almost nobody but him would care about. Most of the book, however, was drawn after he had already passed. Fortunately, the script was completely finished, so I had all of his words to see the project through.
You were also one of the four artists to work on The Pekar Project, Harvey's web-comic series for SMITH Magazine. When did you first suspect that he might want to work with you on a long-form graphic novel as well?
Almost as soon as I started working with him, he expressed the desire to do a graphic novel with me. There were actually several other stories that he had tried to sell with me attached that, for whatever reason, never happened. One was a biographical story about Barack Obama, which could have been interesting, but I'm really glad that this is the work that I got to do. This book is classic Pekar to me, and that's the stuff that I love the most.
I read in an interview that you had a lot of photographs handy for when you were drawing Cleveland, but that you didn't always use them. As an artist, how do you decide when to use reference materials and when to lean more on your imagination?
Well, I think things tend to almost always be more interesting when you draw from imagination because you're only focusing on making a good composition or capturing the right pose or facial expression. Drawings from photographs often tend to look too much like photographs. For a book like this, where the locations are so specific, it required a lot of research just to make it accurate both visually and historically. However, the trick is to make use of the photographs where they're needed, but to still make the drawing look alive and pop off the page. When I started the book, I was using a photo reference for Harvey in almost every panel. Eventually I figured out how to draw him from my mind, and it actually looked a lot more like him and captured something about him that I wasn't getting from looking at photographs. Then I had to go back and re-draw him in the first 50 pages or so, which was a hassle, but well worth it.
One of my favorite parts in Cleveland is the two-page sequence in which Harvey is having a conversation on his porch with a young aspiring cartoonist. Harvey gives him the benefit of his knowledge, but also warns him that he's in for a long, tough road ahead. I remember reading that you made a visit to Harvey's home yourself a few years ago. Was it similar?
No, I went and visited Cleveland with all of the people that were working on The Pekar Project for a gallery show on his 70th birthday. There were film crews and journalists there and it was just crazy. It was really fun, but I hardly got to speak to him at all on that trip. Later that year though, I went to New York for a convention with Harvey, and I met up with him the night before the show and we got pizza and I was able to just have a real conversation with him. I asked him questions about cartoonists he liked and didn't like, Robert Crumb in the '60s, Letterman, if he ever used drugs. It was pretty great, and he seemed to enjoy that I was just interested in all of this stuff about him. That was the best interaction I ever had with him.
Your strong sense of pacing is evident in both Cleveland and your independent comic book Blindspot. Does it come naturally or was it something you developed over time?
First of all, thank you. That's something I'm always very conscious of, and I think is one of the most important qualities of what makes a good comic. Part of that is just being a fan of really good cartoonists and just studying their work closely. Pacing is a rhythmic quality and I kind of think of every panel as its own beat. It's very instinctual, but it's something where I sort of close my eyes and think of how each panel - both silent or spoken - breaks up rhythmically, beat by beat. You follow that rhythm instinctually, and just hope people are reading it the way it plays in your head, but you never really know.
Blindspot is an anthology of both autobiographical and non-autobiographical work. Having done a few issues, how does your creative process for one type differ from the other? Do you have a preference?
Autobiographical stories are easier. That stuff, I just sit down and start writing and it comes very quickly. The trick is to make it entertaining, so actually most of those stories are pretty fictional, but it's still me. It's my thoughts in imagined situations. When I'm writing pure fiction, it takes much longer, and it's painful to get through, but I'm generally more proud it. It's generally more focused on crafting an interesting story that flows and has a beginning, middle and end, and hopefully has some relevant purpose for existing, as opposed to just being a comical rant. Autobiography is kind of my default mode of writing though, and my fictional stories are still filled with personal stories or things that at least ring emotionally true to me. I'm working on a long story right now, and it's very much a blend of stuff from my life and fictional stories, and I'm realizing that that's probably the best way for me to write.
I really enjoyed a comic strip of yours published in 2007 called, "Discovering Rebel Visions and the Underground Comics Revolution" that was both a history of the underground comics movement of the 1960s as well as a memoir. The strip mentions the effect of R. Crumb on your style. Who are your other major influences?
My interest in comics is still relatively small with regards to which creators I like, but people like Daniel Clowes, Chester Brown, and Seth have had a big effect on me. There's a handful of younger creators from my generation I really like now, like Noah Van Sciver, Vanessa Davis, Gabby Schulz, and a few others. However, film and television have probably had a bigger impact on me in regards to the type of stories I want to tell. I'm a huge Woody Allen fan, and I re-watch certain movies of his all the time, searching for the secrets of their greatness. Also people like Louis C.K., Larry David, and Noah Baumbach. Most recently, I've become infatuated with Lena Dunham. I especially like the way she writes guys - like these hipster dudes who seem really cool on the surface, but usually turn out to be these useless, selfish assholes. Her characters really ring true to me. Again, almost everyone I've mentioned are people who are really good at blending autobiography and fiction. That seems to be the sweet spot for me. That, and the combination of humor and sadness - I don't know what that's all about.
Since there are some similarities between your work and R. Crumb's, who collaborated with Pekar on his early American Splendor work, did you ever worry that readers might not appreciate your art in Cleveland based on its own merits?
Yeah, and that probably is the case. But I don't spend much time thinking about that. A lot of people have said really nice things about the art and I'm really happy with its reception. The Crumb influence is undeniable and anyone who illustrates stories for Harvey is inevitably going to be compared to Crumb, because he did it first, and he did it the best.
Getting back to, "Discovering Rebel Visions and the Underground Comics Revolution," toward the end you touch on the legacy of underground comics; for example, its influence on television series such as The Simpsons. In the five years since you created that strip, have your feelings changed at all? Do you feel the legacy is even stronger now or not as much so?
It's hard to say. In a way I think it's not as strong, particularly in independent comics, which doesn't even seem to recognize that generation of cartoonists who really invented the idea of making these types of comics in the first place. Minimalism is much more fashionable in comics now, as well as this sort of cutesy, sad, cartoony aesthetic, and just weird, twisted takes on genre comics. I really can't get into about 90 percent of what I see, but the ten percent of good stuff out there just keeps getting better. As far as pop culture in general, I really have no idea about the underground comics influence. I know people like Matt Groening and some of the original Saturday Night Live people were directly influenced by that stuff, and you can see it in the work they made. Now people are influenced by Matt Groening, but may never have read a Crumb comic.
What projects are you working on next?
I've got a long story I'm working on that I've just made the decision to serialize online. I was against doing it that way for a long time, but after seeing the success that people like Ed Piskor and Kate Beaton have had, I've kind of altered my thinking. My friend Noah Van Sciver and I are working on a joint website together, where we'll both be serializing stories and adding new pages to the site every week, so I'm really excited about that. I'm also planning on publishing a book of short stories sometime in the next year. Hopefully, everything just works out great!