One of the other things I like about GoComics is that they’re constantly signing up “new” artists and strips to the site, and they announce the new ones in the editor’s blog. (I say “new” because B&W had been doing work for the Guardian for years before licensing with GoComics.) The best part of this is that I can immediately sample the strips and decide whether I want to follow them or not. So, when Berger&Wyse was announced, I was floored immediately. The art style is extremely clean and polished, and the jokes are wicked clever. Initially, they ran their food gags, but eventually we’ve been getting more of the other Guardian panels, too. Generally, they post on GoComics weekly, but there have been rather long gaps between updates, which are still well-worth waiting for.
BC: Expose yourselves.
We are Joe Berger and Pascal Wyse. Joe knows what he is – an illustrator and author. Pascal has spent many years doing many things, but has finally settled on creating music and sound for a living. Over the 15 or so years we have been working together, there have been a variety of projects for us, including animation, sketch writing and giving workshops on cartooning – but the constant over all that time has been a comic strip for the Guardian newspaper in the UK.
BC: What personal details do you think are relevant to your readers?
Pascal: I’m tempted to say very little, to be honest! I suppose it is worth admitting that I was never steeped in comics. I did love 2000AD as a kid, and avidly consumed Peanuts in the Observer, but as a grown up I never really bothered. Then I met Joe, and he put a Robert Crumb book in my hand, as well as introducing me to Alan Moore and others. In a sense I feel almost more interested in the mechanics of how comics – especially humorous ones – work than actually consuming them. Oh dear, I’d best get my coat…
BC: Don’t panic. The pillaging of your offices comes later.
Covert from Blackwatch Media on Vimeo.
Joe: I have always loved comics and cartoons. I grew up in Bristol UK in the 1980s, reading 2000AD, Mad Magazine and lots of Marvel and DC comics. So writers like Frank Miller and Alan Moore made a big impact on me. As well as strips like Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes, and Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons. In my mid-teens I discovered the underground and indy side of comics; Crumb, Peter Bagge, Dan Clowes, Love and Rockets. My eyes were opened to what the humble comic book medium could aspire to. I really wanted to draw long-form comic stories, but I found the writing really hard, and usually gave up after a couple of pages. In my twenties I moved to London, and self-published a couple of comic books, before getting ‘sidetracked’ into freelance illustration and animation work. Pasc and I started the first incarnation of our Guardian slot around about 2000, so that was the point at which I could confidently call myself a cartoonist and comic strip creator, without the ‘aspiring’ prefix.
BC: Do you consider yourselves cartoonists, illustrators, artists, or somethings elses?
Pascal: I can’t draw to save my life. I think for me this is closest to writing, in micro form.
Joe: I consider myself a cartoonist for the Berger & Wyse cartoons, and a writer and illustrator at other times, because I also write and illustrate children’s books.
BC: How did you get your starts then?
Pascal: I was working at the Guardian newspaper as a subeditor on the arts desk, on a supplement that was then called Film and Music. There was a comic strip in the section, which I heard was coming to an end, so I approached the editor and said, can I pitch something in that slot, and asked Joe if he fancied trying something. It needed to be related to film or music. What became of that was The Pitchers – a four panel strip based on the failing exploits of two enthusiastic but broadly rubbish Hollywood script writers called Chet and Foley. At first it was just them pitching awful movies, in the X-meets-Y formula, but it grew in to an ongoing soap with a whole cast … And ran for seven years.
Joe: Yep, that was our first foray into doing a four panel strip, and getting paid for it no less!
BC: What were your biggest breaks?
Pascal: That was the break, getting in to the Guardian. It was also the first time I had ever tried writing a strip!
Joe: After seven years, the Guardian moved us into the magazine and we began doing a single panel cartoon about food. The work we put into the Pitchers really helped pave the way for doing a one panel, I think, which is a very different discipline. With the four panel strip, once we’d worked out the gag we’d have to write and draw up to the punchline, so the joke was often a little laboured. It was a real breath of fresh air doing the food cartoon, because once we had the gag, there was no extraneous dialogue or build up. It’s an even more distilled form of writing; like poetry, in a sense – pretentious as that might sound.
BC: What led up to your starting Berger & Wyse, and what else do you have happening now?
Pascal: As a partnership, at the moment we have one poker in the fire: the weekly strip. Partly that is because we are both very busy with other projects, myself with music and sound. Over the years we have done title sequences, short animations and other kinds of writing, and hopefully we’ll do more of those other things if the diary frees up.
Joe: We’ve always wanted to do more as Berger & Wyse, and a lot of the other projects we’ve worked on have involved coming up with ideas together – that’s our main crossover. But as Pasc says, we’re both busy with our own work. I have a fantasy that we will one day be old men in Manhattan, publishing in the New Yorker. I haven’t shared that with Pasc, he might have other plans.
Pascal: I can’t believe you chose such a public forum to reveal this wish.
BC: Which of your works do you like most?
Joe: I love the immediacy of the single panel cartoons – when we come up with a good one it’s hugely satisfying. And then it’s gone. The title sequences we did for the BBC drama series Hustle, and more recently Ambassadors, were a huge effort to produce, and I’m very proud of the results. I also periodically re-read the Pitchers strips and I really enjoy what we managed to create there, despite its (perhaps) more limited appeal than the food cartoon.
Pascal: It is always peculiar looking back over the work. Strips I thought were good at the time sometimes fall flat; others reveal aspects I hadn’t appreciated at the time. I’m with Joe on the single panel toons, plus a miniature spy animation we made called Covert – which we wrote together, and became my first wobbly steps in writing music for animation. Although it is long gone, I’m proud of the body of work the Pitchers represents. I got fond of those characters.
BC: Do you have any paper or ebooks out? Where can readers find them?
Pascal: As Joe mentioned, for a while our cartoon was based exclusively on food, and a collection was made from that range, published in book form by Bloomsbury/Absolute. I’m afraid it is no longer in print … So harass the publishers! We also have an arrangement with a great card company in the UK called Woodmansterne, who make greetings cards of some of our toons.
BC: How do you approach that blank sheet of white paper when you decide to start your next panel?
Pascal: With caution and a sawn-off shotgun … That, of course, is the most interesting question, and the one that weighs down the shelves of self-help writing manuals. I think for me it is about resisting the idea of any such formula, and withstanding – even relishing – the discomfort of not knowing if an idea is going to arrive. The last thing you need, if you reach crisis point, is to tense and lose mental flexibility. We have the benefit of being able to bounce ideas off each other. It’s amazing how, when you relax the thinking muscle and, say, go to the toilet or make a coffee, a solution will pop into your head – but it seems you have to have had that uncomfortable mental workout first. There’s an interesting little publication called A Technique for Producing Ideas, by James Webb, that I think makes a similar point about how ideas come when you look away. I always have to work at persuading the editor or censor in my mind to just go away for a while and let ideas at least stand a chance. When it works, it is fab, but not being able to come up with a single idea that you like, when you know the paper is waiting, is quite a horrible sensation that can easily tip towards self loathing. Still, it is a deluxe problem.
Joe: The idea of ‘relaxing the thinking muscle and going to the toilet’ is a little disturbing – so that’s where ideas come from! But I totally agree – ideas tend to happen when you stop looking for them. I remember, for the first few years of the Pitchers, feeling hugely anxious every single week, thinking we would never be able to write another one. It took a long time to get used to that feeling, and to feel confident that we wouldn’t ever freeze up entirely. It’s still uncomfortable when we do get close to deadline without any inspiration though. I carry a notebook at all times, and try to come to our Monday morning Skype meeting with a few ideas. I often think about the fact that this is the one thing I do that has no editorial input – all my illustration and writing work involves submitting roughs for approval, whereas we are completely free to file whatever we want (within reason). That said, we perform that role for each other – any ideas I bring get parsed by Pasc, and vice-versa. And that keeps us on our toes – we’re neither of us happy to run with an idea that we don’t think is quite right, even if the other is enthusiastic. And that’s important.
BC: If your strip had a soundtrack, what would it be like?
Pascal: To quote Chris Morris, “Like a bomb made of jazz and feathers.”
Ambassadors from Pascal Wyse on Vimeo.
Joe: To be boring and semi-serious about it; last year we made short animations from a number of the single panel strips for the Guardian online, and adding sound to them was a really interesting experience. Just as with the drawing, the sound has a huge influence on the tone of the humour, and you have to work quite hard to avoid things becoming too slapstick or clownish. Generally, the single panel cartoon works by being read quickly, chuckled at and then moved on from. Adding sound and a fixed timing to that experience can labour the joke if you’re not careful.
Pascal: Oh yeah! I forgot about those. Turning a panel into a timed-out sequence is a great challenge, and it really shows you how sometimes the printed, single image is the best delivery for a certain kind of joke. I’m also fascinated by what sounds help humour in that context.
BC: Talk about your favorite artists/writers.
Pascal: I love Peter Blegvad‘s artwork, and he is one of the nicest humans you could meet, so no dirt there I’m afraid. Perhaps a bit more dirty is Modern Toss: when they hit the spot, they are bloody marvelous.
Joe: Ben Katchor (Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer) was a strip that I really loved – recommended to me by Peter Blegvad, in fact. I don’t read much in the way of comics and graphic novels these days (though I am currently writing one), but I love Joff Winterhart’s book for Jonathan Cape, Days of the Bagnold Summer. And he’s working on a new graphic novel which is hugely promising.
BC: Do you follow any other comic strips right now?
Pascal: See Modern Toss. And the New Yorker brigade are always an inspiration. The cartoon compilation books from that publication are never far away.
Joe: I do like Tony Carrillo’s F-Minus on GoComics. It doesn’t always hit the spot, but it’s got a good tone to it – it’s quite a rare thing. I also love Kate Beaton’s Hark, A Vagrant. She’s brilliantly funny, and her more personal stories are really lovely too.
BC: What do you look for when you read someone else’s strips?
Pascal: Something I hadn’t thought of, and which annoys me that I never thought of it!
Joe: Genuine laughs – and they are few and far between. And yes, once you find them, it’s immediately annoying that you didn’t think of the idea yourself.
BC: What do you think makes for a good comic?
Joe: For me the art style is key – it’s the way in, and if I don’t like the drawing style or the characters I often can’t be bothered to get past that. With the exception of something like Doonesbury – despite the weird noses, I like the writing enough to not worry about it.
BC: Do you use Patreon or Kickstarter?
Pascal: We don’t use those platforms, or at least haven’t yet. But you can catch up with us at www.bergerandwyse.com, www.joeberger.co.uk and www.pascalwyse.net.
Joe: Yes I’m not really au fait with those platforms.
BC: Do you have anything coming up?
Joe: My first graphic novel (I’m calling it a ‘cartoon story’ actually, because that feels less grand) is out in January 2017, published by Simon & Schuster in the UK and US. Lyttle Lies, book one: The Pudding Problem. You know, for kids. And Pasc and I are available to talk about the mysteries of cartooning for anyone who’ll pay our travel – shall I say this or is it naff?
Pascal: That’s naff.
(All artwork here has been reproduced with the permission of the artist. Copyright Berger&Wyse (c) 2016.)
(This interview is the copyright (c) of Curtis H. Hoffmann 2016. It may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of the author.)