Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes, Alison Bechdel, and other comic artists reveal tricks of the trade in a new book
For nearly a decade, writer Hillary L. Chute has been interviewing some of North America’s most influential cartoonists. She has discussed the distasteful aspects of adolescent psychology with Daniel Clowes, the author of Ghost World. She has picked apart the delicate nature of exploring family dysfunction with Alison Bechdel, who produced the autobiographical graphic novel Fun Home. And she’s explored the darker fascinations of Charles Burns, an artist whose characters often deal with disease or disfigurement. Over the years some of these interviews have been published; others have not. But now they’ve all been gathered into an enlightening new compendium, Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists, just out from University of Chicago Press.
Chute is no stranger to the subject of comics. An assistant professor of literature at the University of Chicago, she has been studying the form for more than a decade. She is also the author of Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics (2010), which examined the contributions of women in the field. And she contributed to MetaMaus (2011), a book that explored the making of Art Spiegelman’s seminal Maus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel that told the story of the artist’s family during and after the Holocaust. (Spiegelman, who inspired Chute’s love of comics to begin with, also figures in Outside the Box.)
Like Spiegelman, the nearly dozen artists Chute interviews are all pretty high profile—and collectively, they’ve been interviewed just about everywhere, from Time to the New York Times to The Paris Review. But Chute’s keen knowledge of their work elicits interesting details about their process. Chris Ware, an artist known for his wordless comics of sad sacks and ne’er-do-wells, talks about his interest in the diagrammatic aspects of typography. And Phoebe Gloeckner, who blends literary text with painting and graphic elements, describes the ways in which vintage book illustrations have inspired aspects of her work.
Bechdel, whose Fun Home was named one of the “10 Best Books of the Year” by Time in 2006, describes the role that photography plays in her work. The artist regularly depicts family snapshots in her drawings, providing a documentary sensibility to her comics. And, in a rather Cindy Sherman-esque turn, she reveals that she photographs herself in myriad poses to use as reference. “I can’t even draw the simplest pose now without a reference shot,” she confesses.
One of Chute’s more engrossing conversations is with the genre-busting Joe Sacco, an artist who employs comics as a journalistic device, using them to report on his journeys through war-torn Serbia or the refugee camps of the Gaza Strip. In the interview, Sacco discusses his research methods and the instinctive way in which he lays out his pages, but also discloses the emotional relationship he has with his subjects. “You have to put yourself in everyone’s shoes that you draw, whether it’s a soldier or a civilian,” he tells Chute. “You have to think about what it’s like: What are they thinking? What are they feeling?”
Together, the interviews help illuminate the complex web of thinking that goes into producing a single comic panel. It’s an intimate look at the making of significant works of comic book art at the turn of the 21st century.