Dan Piraro interview

I’ve been a big fan of Dan Piraro’s Bizarro comic ever since it first started running in the papers in Minneapolis in the 80’s. I’ve always loved the surrealist humor, the highly detailed artwork, and the look of the characters. When Jim Horwitz’s interview ran at the beginning of January, Dan mentioned it on his blog, which prompted me to go visit there, and ask Dan for an interview, too. He graciously, and surprisingly, said, “Yes.” Which immediately put me in a bind – what do you ask a man that’s been asked every question imaginable already? Answer – … I’m still working on that.

(Dumpty Dan.)

BC: You’ve stated that you’re moving more into painting and establishing yourself as a fine artist. What’s the appeal of painting, to you as a cartoonist? Sam Hurt, of Eyebeam, has also taken up painting, and I’m sure you’re aware that famed funny man George W. Bush also tackled this profession after retiring from his stand up career. What makes painting so popular as an activity? Is it the work schedule, the lack of deadlines, or greater control of the licensing rights?
DP: I grew up wanting to be a painter but being raised in a small town in Oklahoma, didn’t have the slightest idea how to make money at it. To avoid minimum wage jobs, I gravitated towards commercial illustration in my early twenties and was fairly quickly able to make enough to live indoors and eat regularly and was happy with that for a while. It was certainly better than the random jobs I’d been doing since high school, but I didn’t enjoy the work. In fact, within a couple of years, I really hated it. In an effort to escape the world of ad agencies, I began drawing and submitting cartoons to syndicates. I got some interest fairly quickly, but it took a couple of years of trying before finally getting a small syndicate, Chronicle Features in San Francisco, to give me a try. I considered myself profoundly fortunate to have landed a syndication contract at the age of 26 but didn’t realize that the money would be very slow coming and so I was trapped in my commercial illustration job for quite a few more years, doing Bizarro at night and on weekends.

(“Four Clerics Ignoring a Vision”, Dan Piraro (1995) 48″x48″, oil on linen.)

DP: Though I’ve really enjoyed my cartoon career, I’ve always seen myself becoming a painter eventually. I find fine art to be very meditative and the easiest way to get into what people call “flow” or the “zone”. Unlike commercial art and cartooning, fine art is something you do entirely for yourself, without aiming it at an audience. Also, my fine art looks very little like my cartoon art so it’s a big change of pace for me.

(From the Creative Haven Bizarro Land coloring book.)

BC: When Trump gets his wall built, who will be the first to deface it – you, or Banksy?
DP: I’ve been saying that I’d be happy to pitch in to pay for and build that wall if it will keep Trump and his supporters out of Mexico. In reality, though, one can easily see it is going to be an impossibly expensive quagmire that will likely never be completed; Trump’s Tower of Babel. And, of course, if it ever is completed, all one needs to defeat a 25-foot wall is a 26-foot ladder.


BC: Speaking of Trump, his followers seem to be very quick in denouncing anti-Trump cartoons, and claiming to boycott the artists of said cartoons. What’s your view on this? Is it better to play it safe and stay away from political cartoons now? Should artists stand up for their beliefs regardless of the consequences, or should they remain neutral and then use the money they make off of Trump supporters to help fund the groups Trump targets?
DP: The old paradigm for syndicated cartoonists used to be to not do anything to offend anyone in an attempt to maintain the broadest possible appeal. But now, with newspapers in decline and the way the Internet works, the opposite is true. There is so much interesting content online that it is very hard to attract attention; one way to do so is to have a strong opinion, which serves to attract people with similar opinions, of which there are always enough to support you. I’ve been hammering Trump hard on an almost weekly basis and it has improved my visibility and popularity online, not diminished it. (I’ve also not received any complaints from my client newspapers, which was something I occasionally got when I would take a shot at W. Bush.) I think it is important to remember that less than 1/4 of Americans voted for Trump. Who knows what the half of the country that did not vote at all think, but I’m guessing it’s safe to assume that a clear majority of Americans despise him and want him gone as quickly as possible. So I suspect trashing him isn’t that dangerous to any one person’s career. Even if it were, I refuse to remain silent during what is inarguably the darkest time in America’s history in a century. All of us need to call out this lying carnival barker and his cabinet of Simpsons billionaires.


BC: Can you talk about your stand-up comedy experiences? Were there any high- or low-lights that really stand out or make for good stories?
DP: I loved doing my one-man show and stand-up back in the day. There is nothing like the immediate gratification of hearing a roomful of people laugh at your comedy. Cartoonists don’t usually get that.

Direct youtube link

DP: My best and worst memories of those days belong to a single tour I did in about 2005 with my relatively new wife and my eldest daughter, Krapuzar. (She and her sister, Krelspeth, are who the hidden “K2” in my cartoons are a shout-out to.) My daughter was in her early 20s and was onstage with me during “The Bizarro Baloney Show,” which entailed songs, puppets, stand-up, video, some audience interaction, sets, costumes, props, and a few other bits of vaudevillian shenanigans. She played violin during the songs, did a bit of improvisational back-and-forth with me, and together we sang and danced to the big finale number. Audiences loved it and those shows are among my favorite memories of our time spent together.

(Baloney promo shot.)

DP: On the dark side, there were only the three of us on that tour and we had to manage the props, costumes and sets, the hotel and transportation arrangements, the tickets, sales of products, everything. It was exhausting and–without the payoff of the adulation onstage–my wife came to hate it and developed a major case of jealousy over my relationship with my daughter. She became increasingly surly and the tension between her and us was tremendous. It was such a drag that I got a stress zit in the middle of my forehead that would not go away. I looked like a religious Hindu for weeks. I still have a prominent scar there to this day, which I hate. Fortunately, the marriage didn’t last as long as the scar.

(From the Creative Haven Bizarro Land coloring book.)

BC: Since, you’re talking about retiring, looking back on your career as a cartoonist, are there any things that really stand out, good or bad, things that make you shake your head and say “what were they thinking” or “what was I thinking?” People you’ve met in the industry that you’ve become friends with that have stories worth repeating?
DP: I’m not sure this is what you’re asking for but this story occurs to me as a highlight: I was at the Montreal Just For Laughs comedy festival (as an audience member, not a performer) and I went to see Zach Galifianakis perform. I’ve long been a huge fan of both his stand-up and his TV and film work. Halfway through his set he walked through the audience and did some question/answer improv with random people. It was one of those old theaters that had cocktail tables on the floor and seats in the balcony. He happened by my table and asked the typical questions of me, looking for ways to improvise something funny.
“What’s your name?”…Dan.
“What do you do?” …I’m a syndicated cartoonist.
“Oh, really? Is it anything I might know?” …I do “Bizarro”.
At this, completely unexpected, the audience erupted in applause. This was hugely satisfying to me, of course. Then Zach said, “No way! I love your cartoons!” This was even more hugely satisfying. We chatted for another 30 seconds or so then he moved on. After the show I went backstage and met him, we exchanged email addresses and have very loosely stayed in touch via email since. I was hoping we’d become best friends and I’d end up getting a part in one of his films but that never happened, of course. :^}


BC: Other than just becoming older, how do you think you’ve changed as a cartoonist over the years? Are there types of jokes that you’ve done before that just don’t seem funny anymore? Or, do you think your audiences have changed since you started out? Who are your favorite cartoonists for doing guest appearances in the Bizarro strip? Any artists that you’d love to work with again, given the chance?
DP: I’ve learned a lot about what makes a funny cartoon and what misses. About three quarters of my first couple years of work now seems clumsy and amateurish to me and I’m a bit embarrassed by much of it. Fortunately, that was in the late 80s, before everything you did appeared on the Internet for eternity.

BC: Aww, those were the ones that attracted me to you in the first place. So… um… can we still be friends?
DP: If you’re comfortable being friends with a self-loathing person, sure.

(From the Creative Haven Bizarro Land coloring book.)

DP: Regarding guest cartoonists, I’ve only done that a handful of times (Wayno, J.C.Duffy, and Francesco Marciuliano are the only three I can think of right now. GOD, I hope I haven’t forgotten anyone!) and have always been happy with what they did. I chose them because I loved their work in the first place, and I was not disappointed by their efforts. One cartoonist I would have loved to have known but did not meet was the late, great B. Kliban.

BC: I like Dave Kellett’s work on Drive, and Sheldon, although I have yet to see Stripped (since I live in Japan). What was it like being interviewed by him for Stripped, and was there anything you talked about with Dave that you would have liked to have seen get into the movie?
DP: Dave’s film was mostly about the changing world of cartoons and the transition between newspapers and the Internet. I’ve learned a lot from his perspective on it, and have found his ideas on how to make the Internet more lucrative for cartoonists to be invaluable. Luckily, I’m still making a decent living off of newspapers so I’ve not had to rely too much on making money online, but as that day approaches, I’ve found myself using a lot of his advice. I spent a few years in LA before I moved to Mexico and was able to become friends with Kellett and pick his brain a bit about the topic. He’s a super talented and smart guy, and is always happy to help other cartoonists succeed.

(Dan, trying to draw a crowd.)

BC: As a last resort question, how about, “If you kept a daily diary, what would a typical entry look like for one day in a Bizarro life?”
DP: People are usually disappointed to hear about my average day. I think they hope it will be surreal and zany, but in truth, I’m a creature of routine and my days are pretty average and domestic. I begin by reading my emails and news articles online as I sip a cup of piping hot whiskey. Around noon, I put away my laptop, climb out of the pallet of straw that I use for a bed, and take my dog for a walk through our rural, Mexican neighborhood to secure the first meal of the day. She’s good at finding edibles in lots of places that I’m too large to get to, like tunnels and the crevices of collapsed buildings. Once we’ve both had enough to eat, we go back to my hut and I get to work on cartoons. Around 5pm, I fire up my motorcycle and buzz through the cobblestone streets of town as fast as I can without hitting any donkey carts, and throw tequila balloons at tourists. (They’re just like water balloons but with tequila. You can get top shelf tequila here for super cheap so it’s very affordable. Most tourists get pissed off but some shout “Thanks, mister!”) This takes about 45 minutes. On the way home, I stop off at the local shaman’s tent and stock up on ayahuasca and peyote. Once home, I chase the iguanas out of my house and remind myself I need to build a door, then I pour myself a balloon of tequila (the iguanas keep breaking my glassware so I drink from balloons) take the ayahuasca and peyote, and spend the rest of the evening talking to creatures from another dimension. I’m not sure what time I go to bed but I wake up in my straw pile each morning at the same time and the whole boring rut starts all over again.


BC: I got it! A question that has never been asked before! Do you accept house guests? Credit cards?
DP: One of the things people who move to exotic locations have nightmares about is people whom they don’t necessarily want as house guests inviting themselves to come stay. I can recommend some lovely hotels in the area that accept credit cards, however.

(From the Creative Haven Bizarro Land coloring book.)

BC: In a criminally inept world controlled by unbelievably ill-informed leadership, Dan provides an insanely reasonably priced book of adult coloration for only $5.99. The above illustrations have been from Creative Haven Bizarro Land. The ink fumes alone are worth the price of the book.

(All artwork here has been reproduced with the permission of the artist. Copyright Dan Piraro (c) 2017.)
(This interview is the copyright (c) of Curtis H. Hoffmann 2017. It may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of the author.)

Poll: Do the hotels you stay at change the straw every three days?



Well, I’ve got the questions sent out to 4 different artists, one set of answers promised “soon”,  and I’m waiting for follow-up answers from one other artist. While I’m waiting for them to get back to me, I’ll run this article.

Andrew Hart, creator of the Winston webcomic, promised me something for Christmas. I was expecting a drawing.
I was only half-right.

The other half was a hand-made clay model of Winston himself. If you’re not familiar with this comic, Winston’s father was an inventor, but not a particularly good one. Through a series of bad choices, he drove his wife and son into financial ruin and they had to find a new place to live, and basically just survive. Winston himself is a product of his father’s work (hence the wheels for feet). His best friend is a crow named Kingsley. His mother’s constant companion is a big, green hobo-like manifestation of her despair, aptly named “Gloom”.

Winston’s main pastime is finding all new ways of making life interesting, albeit in a life-threatening way. It’s brilliant black humored satire, and one of my favorite strips on GoComics.

Winston here is going on my Christmas tree next year. If we last that long.

Gloom’s Facebook page.

Andrew Hart interview

If you’re not familiar Andrew Hart’s Winston, Winston is a young boy trying to make his way through life. His father was an inventor, but not a particularly good one. Through a series of bad choices, he put his wife and son into financial ruin and they had to find a new place to live, and basically just survive. Winston himself is a product of his father’s work (hence the wheels for feet). His best friend is a crow named Kingsley. His mother’s constant companion is a big, green hobo-like manifestation of her despair, aptly named “Gloom”. I love the dark humor of the strip, which is leavened with a twisted “up side”. The artwork is simple and clean, and the characters are easily identifiable.

(The introduction to the world of Winston.)

BC: Do you consider yourself a cartoonist, an illustrator, an artist, or something else?
AH: I consider myself a cartoonist because all my artwork always comes back to cartooning.

BC: How did you get your start as a cartoonist?
AH: It took awhile. I had two previous comic strips that, over the years, I submitted to the big five syndicates, that were rejected. It was an evolution combined with a burst of inspiration that created Winston.

(from Winston)

BC: How long have you been at this, and what do you think your biggest breaks were?
AH: I worked at cartooning off and on over a decade or so. When one door closed, I looked for another. I spent years as a graphic designer and illustrator. Even tried writing my own children’s book. As for cartooning, I’d say my first big break was drawing political cartoons for the Democrats for Education Reform. It was a great gig and my readership was all “in the Beltway.”

(proposed illustration for a children’s book)

BC: What led up to your starting Winston, and do you have any other pokers in the fire right now?
AH: The City Paper held a Philadelphia comic strip contest and I wrote the first Winston as my submission. Even though my comic was not selected, I liked the idea enough to keep tooling with it. There are no other pokers in the fire. I feel any artistic capital I have right now should be invested in Winston.

(from Andrew’s travel journal)

BC: Which of your works are you most happy with, or proud of?
AH: Aside from Winston, some my favorite pieces are the travel journals I’ve drawn over the years. It’s the spontaneity of these works, written on the fly during vacations, that I believe is a strong representation of the trip. An excerpt of one of these can be viewed here: andre-whart.blogspot.com/2015/03/the-italian-journal.html

BC: Do you have any collections on the market yet? Where can readers find them?
AH: In college I co-founded a group called “The Philadelphia Cartoonist Society.” It’s an active group of local cartoonists supporting each other’s individual projects as well as combining our talents for group events. We’ve published three books as a collective and I believe Book 1 is available through Amazon. (Books 1 and 2 are available at the moment.)

(from Winston)

BC: How do you approach that blank sheet when you decide to start your next strip?
AH: By the time I sit at the drawing table, the idea is already formed and ready to be executed.

BC: If your strip had a soundtrack, what would it be?
AH: Probably West Coast Jazz. I like to listen to instrumental music when I draw. Lately the list has included Weather Report, Takuya Kuroda, and Miles Davis’ “In A Silent Way.”

(from Andrew’s travel journal)

BC: Do you follow any other comic strips right now?
AH: I actually don’t read any comic strips but I am reading Hellboy and Moebius.

BC: Which Mobius book are you reading? What appeals to you about it? I loved The Air Tight Garage, back in the 80’s, but it seems that modern webcomic audiences in the U.S. have less tolerance for that type of storytelling. And, why Hellboy?
AH: I’m reading Moebius’ Garden of Edena. The reason for reading this and Hellboy is this; Graphic Novels are a genre that I’ll never undertake. I can admire them and appreciate them without critical or self-evaluation.

(from Winston)

BC: What do you think makes for a good comic?
AH: I think a good comic strip creates a unique world or place. And a well-written strip isn’t just a simple gag with a twist of irony, but is more thoughtful than it appears. I’m still working at both these concepts. I think it’s a journey and a self-realization that leads to this. It’s not just drawing, but becoming a writer as well.

BC: Do you use Patreon or Kickstarter? How do you think they are changing the face of webcartooning?
AH: I can’t say I’m in touch with the digital cartooning landscape.

(All artwork here has been reproduced with the permission of the artist. Copyright Andrew J. Hart (c) 2017.)
(This interview is the copyright (c) of Curtis H. Hoffmann 2017. It may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of the author.)

Kevin Vassey interview

I’ve been reading Legend of Bill ever since it started running on GoComics. A few months ago, it was joined by The Gnome Syndicate, and I started reading that because I like the concept. Both strips have simple, clean artwork, and funny, rambling storylines. Bill is an accountant that decides to become a professional barbarian. While in Gnome Syndicate, we have 13, a less than elegant agent out to battle an evil force that has infiltrated his agency.

BC: Who are you?
KV: “Kevin Vassey is a 13 year veteran of the feature animation industry, where he worked on such film franchises as Shrek, Madagascar, and How To Train Your Dragon. While working on many fun animated films, he continued to pursue his passion for cartooning, and making art. In 2011, he started the Gnome Syndicate to help expand the world surrounding Legend of Bill. Now, while continuing to work in the video game industry, Kevin writes and draws both Legend of Bill and the Gnome Syndicate twice a week at legendofbill.com/.

BC: Do you consider yourself a cartoonist, an illustrator, an artist, or something else?
KV: I would say definitely an artist, and still working on the cartoonist part.

BC: How did you get your start as an artoonist?
KV: I started drawing at 4 or 5 years old and haven’t stopped. I was lucky to have family that supported my love of art and music.

(from The Gnome Syndicate)

BC: How long have you been at that, and what do you think your biggest breaks were?
KV: I’ve been a professional artist since I was 18, when I sold my first commissioned piece. But my big breaks came from working at Disney and making friends from co-workers there. It’s all who you know, seriously.

BC: What led up to your working on Gnome Syndicate, and do you have any other pokers in the fire right now?
KV: I did a guest strip for David Reddick, the creator of Legend of Bill, around the time I was working on ‘How To Train Your Dragon‘. From there, he asked if I’d like to do a spin-off strip about the Gnomes, etc. from the Legend of Bill world. I said YES!!! Then a few years later, he got syndicated with Intelligent Life and asked me to take over on Legend of Bill. So, I’m actually writing and drawing both of those strips now. Oh, I have a lot of other comic ideas, and cartoons, etc, but I just need more time.

BC: What’s the status of Legend of Bill on GoComics? Is that going to start updating again?
KV: I actually don’t handle the uploading for Legend of Bill(LoB) on GoComics, even though I write and draw it now. That’s still the responsibility of the creator, David Reddick.

(from The Gnome Syndicate)

BC: Which of your works are you most happy with, or proud of?
KV: Of course I’m proud of all my film and animation work, but I think I’m the most proud of Gnome Syndicate. We are going on seven years of work now and it makes me really happy to see how much I’ve grown as an artist and cartoonist while working on it. Progress feels good, but there’s still sooo much more to learn.

BC: Do you see any differences in the artistic processes of animating and drawing comics? Is one intellectually easier to create than the other? Or, do they both have similar challenges?
KV: They are actually really similar in my eyes, and both have similar challenges. You are always thinking about staging, posing, expression, and how to pace the scene. A lot of the poses I draw in the strip would be key frame poses if I were animating the scene traditionally.

(from Legend of Bill)

BC: How did you get your start as an animator?
KV: I knew I wanted to be in animation when I was 11 years old. I had always been drawing, and then figured out that my drawings could come to life. I was on a trip to Disney World when that happened and that became my goal.

BC: And, do you prefer working with paper, cels or a tablet?
KV: I love working with paper, but these days, I couldn’t live without my Wacom Cintiq. I have a very old model, a 21UX that I’ve had for about 8 years. It’s still chugging along, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

(from Legend of Bill)

BC: Are you fully responsible for both Gnome and Bill? That is, do you handle the writing as well as the drawing?
KV: Yes, I handle both the writing and drawing for BOTH strips. Gnome Syndicate since late 2010, and Bill since late 2013. I usually do a quick ‘flatting’ pass on the colors and then the amazing Don Keuhn does the final colors.

BC: Any challenges in switching between the two stories all the time?
KV: Yes, a little. It can be tough world building, and trying my best to keep both narratives interesting. It takes planning, for sure.

BC: How do you keep the character voices separated between the two, so that 13 doesn’t start talking like Bill, etc?
KV: That part isn’t too bad, actually. The Bill characters were so well defined, I have a harder time making sure they are living up to the amazing work that came before me. With the Gnomes, I have a lot of freedom and have sort of grown up with the characters. In both cases though, sometimes, the characters write themselves.

BC: How would you describe the sense of humor in either/both strips?
KV: I think Bill can be a little lighter than the Gnomes. Although Bill has been in some dark areas, and the story has had serious undertones, ultimately, his personality sort of sets the tone, which is bumbling and good-hearted. He started out as an accountant after all. The Gnome Syndicate started out as an expansion to LoB dealing with office humor, and more sit-com style jokes. Then, my film background sort of took over, and it morphed into quite the soap opera. It has a large over-arching plot and I’m using the time to try and grow the characters and their relationships. Although 13 is definitely the star, the cast has each had their spotlight through the years. You could say LoB has the ability to operate in a long form story mode as well as a gag-a-day format, where the Gnome Syndicate is more serialized, where you have a harder time jumping in. That was a wordy answer.

(from Legend of Bill)

BC: That’s ok, interviews are built on words. Which one do you think is the most fun to draw/write for?
KV: I think the Gnome Syndicate is a little easier just because of being the creator of the characters, and the number of years I’ve been doing it. But, Bill offers such a breath of fresh air, and the characters are such a challenge to draw. I try my best not to stray too far into my style with the characters, and keep a lot of what makes David Reddick’s work so appealing. He has this amazing skill with the shapes of the characters and how the rhythm of those shapes play off each other in the face, etc. It’s actually really complex, and trying to capture that appeal in my drawings of the characters is crazy fun. Also, as an aside, it’s one of the reason’s I love webcomics as a medium. It’s always amazing to see an artist grow in skill with the characters. My early work on Gnomes and Bill is super hard to look at now. As an artist, I don’t think you can ever stop improving….ever.

BC: How do you approach that blank sheet of paper?
KV: I try my very best to have at least some idea of what needs to be there. Often times, when inspiration hits, I pull out my phone and write, or sketch panels quickly with my finger. Since I work digitally, it makes it pretty easy to transfer that and get to work. The blank page has always been a nemesis of mine.

BC: If your strip had a soundtrack, what would it be?
KV: It would definitely be something orchestral from Hans Zimmer, John Williams, or James Horner.

BC: Who are your favorite artists/writers?
KV: Wow, hmm, …ok here’s just a few… Monet, Degas, Picasso, Dali, Norman Rockwell, Sargent, Schiele, Schulz, Watterson, Kelly, Jeff Smith, Walt Disney, Glen, Jeff and Claire Keane, Trey Finney, Aaron Blaise, Goro Fujita, Shannon Jefferies, Kendal Cronkhite, Travis Koller, Mark Behm… I could go on and on. And yes, some of these I’ve worked closely with in the animation industry. They’re just all so inspiring, sometimes I have to make myself stop looking at their work and make some myself.

BC: Do you follow any other comic strips right now?
KV: I follow Intelligent Life, PVP, Table Titans, Girls with Slingshots, Wonderella, XKCD, Rip Haywire… the list goes on and on. I follow all these great strips because I love seeing the diversity in the work and hopefully to learn a thing or two.

BC: What do you look for when you read someone else’s strips?
KV: I don’t think I’m looking for anything in particular. If the strip hooks me, it just kind of happens.

BC: What do you think makes for a good comic?
KV: Oh I wish I knew this one. It would make it much easier to be a huge success. Hahaha. I think you have to make the comic for yourself, using your voice, and just maybe it’ll catch on.

BC: Do you use Patreon?
KV: I definitely use Patreon, and I think it’s great… now if I just had a few more patrons. Seriously though, I think the patronage system is an awesome way to go, but I also believe you need to have a comic that targets an audience that is comfortable with online spending and has some disposable income. Here’s my page if anyone is interested: www.patreon.com/kmvassey.

BC: Do you have any projects coming up? Appearances scheduled for conventions?
KV: Well, definitely another great year of Legend of Bill and Gnome Syndicate. I will be at SC Comicon in Greenville SC on March 25-26, as well as a few local library events here in the Raleigh, NC, area.

BC: Anything you want to add to address potential new readers?
KV: Please check out Legend of Bill and Gnome Syndicate, and feel free to join me every Monday night at 9pm EST for my art stream on Twitch. I am usually inking and coloring a strip and chatting with people about comics, animation, movies, etc. Here’s the link: www.twitch.tv/kmvassey. And if you miss my stream, you can usually catch a copy of it here, on YouTube.

(Pokemon fan artwork covered under the legal agreement at www.pokemon.com/us/legal/)
(All other artwork here has been reproduced with the permission of the artist. Copyright Kevin Vassey (c) 2017.)
(This interview is the copyright (c) of Curtis H. Hoffmann 2017. It may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of the author.)

Jim Horwitz Interview – WATSON

Watson is the creation of artist and writer Jim Horwitz, a suave, mysterious young man who it’s my pleasure to have finally met and to then introduce to you, the readers, by using a sentence that has no ending, only beginnings, much like a Groundhog Day New Year, and that originally started when

I discovered Watson, a topical weekly webcomic that features the titular character, Watson the dog, and the children he guards in the Good Haven neighborhood and uses a variety of art styles and cameo appearances by other characters, brilliantly drawn by Jim Horwitz, a strange, sophisticated

young man who

(from Watson.)

BC: Who are you?
JH: I’m the real Jim Horwitz. It’s really me.

BC: Are there many imitators?
JH: At least seven, nationally, that I know of. There’s one in Japan who created a Watson knock-off site called American Funny Dog; his English is very poor. He calls himself Jim “Hot-wires,” which is funny because that’s what MS-Word spell-checks my last name into. – He may be running Word-2010 on his computer. …I don’t know.

(from American Funny Dog.)

BC: How do the fakers do in-person? Have you ever met any of them?
JH: Most fakers have trouble navigating the chemistry of my warmness with my neurotica. Most fans can usually spot fakers at events, but not always. Supposedly, there’s a Jim Horwitz in Canada who does very well. From what I hear, he hasn’t paid for a meal or hotel room since 2012. A friend with connections to the Ontario police tells me he has a specially designated ambulance he uses to zip through traffic if he’s in a hurry. He also does stand-up at the Elk’s lodge every other Tuesday.

BC: Where is there an Elk’s Lodge in Ontario?
JH: There’s one in Echo Bay on Church Street. The Elks are very big in Ontario. There’s at least 15 chapters; maybe 20.

(from Watson.)

BC: What kind of comedy does the fake Jim Horwitz do at the Elk’s lodge?
JH: Shticky Jewish stuff, from what I’ve heard. Getting the bagel caught in the elevator door. Forgetting to milk the chicken. The usual drill. – You know.

BC: Do you consider yourself a cartoonist, an illustrator, an artist, or something else?
JH: I consider myself a cartoonist. That’s the best of the four, I feel. I once tried to get a table at Elaine’s telling them I was something else and it went very badly. I got a terrible table by the kitchen.

BC: What did you tell them you were?
JH: A platypus.

(Jim Horwitz as a platypus.)

BC: Did you get to eat?
JH: Eventually. I made the mistake of going there the night the restaurant was closing for good. I had no idea. It was wall-to-wall people. I remember Gay Talese and Alec Baldwin were having dinner at the table right next to me. Eventually, Gay vouched for me and the platypus thing was soon forgotten.

BC: Did you get a better table?
JH: No. They threw me out.

BC: Why.
JH: No one likes a smart-ass platypus.

(Smart-ass platypus at Elaine’s.)

BC: How did you get your start as a cartoonist?
JH: I started doodling when I was young and just kept with it. I think that’s good advice for any field. Just keep at it, keep learning, and, in time, you’ll probably improve.

BC: What do you think your biggest breaks were?
JH: Not getting syndicated when I was 22.

BC: What’s the story?
JH: In the late 90s, Universal Press was interested in my college strip and we talked steadily for six months. I kept sending them new stuff and we kept talking every few weeks to fine-tune it. It was super exciting, but I was very young. The strip was very elaborate visually and I’m almost certain I would’ve burned out after a few years. Had that happened, I fear it might’ve warped my sensibility about a life in comics. I’m glad things worked out as they did. I’m having more fun now than I ever have before.

BC: Is it true you have a bar in your studio?
JH: Yes, that’s true. Many artists have strange rituals they follow when they work.

JH: Charles Schulz had a favorite pen-nib he used: the Esterbrook Radio 914. When he found out the company was going under, he bought up every last box of pen tips, enough to finish out his career.

(from Watson.)

BC: What an interesting story. Are there more like that?
JH: The short-story writer John Cheever used to dress in a full suit each morning, take the elevator down to the boiler room of his apartment building, strip down to his boxers, and type for hours at a folding card table. Nabakov, I know, also wrote his novels on index cards and laid them out on the floor in front of him.

JH: There’s a lot of mystery surrounding the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 pencil, I know. Supposedly, it was a favorite of Nabakov, John Steinbeck, Stanley Kubrick, and Truman Capote. People in Hollywood seemed to think it had magical properties. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I enjoy the idea of rituals and understand why people have them. They make life a lot more fun.

(from Watson.)

BC: Do you have any cartooning rituals you swear by?
JH: I do write my gags on diner checks, the kinds of little pads waitresses use to take your order at restaurants.

BC: That’s unusual. Why those specifically?
JH: There’s not a lot of space to write, so it encourages simplicity and economy. It also reminds me that readers are coming and going and have places to be, like workers in the city grabbing a sandwich. “…Whatever you’re gonna say, make it good and make it fast.” – Something kind of like that.

BC: And, you also have a special kind of coffee cup that you like to use.
JH : Yes. They’re the blue-and-white Greek Anthora coffee cups. I like them as well for the same reason. They’re hard to find, so I have to order them specially from New York. The pads and the cups kind of go together. Whenever I travel I bring both with me. Whenever I stay at a hotel, I always have them in my room. The coffee at some hotels is very good and I don’t like the idea of putting it in a paper cup, but if I’m at some little place I have no problem switching out one of my cups for the cup and saucer on the table. I like to have things a certain way.

(Guests check in…)

BC: What sort of tools do you use when you draw?
JH: I draw on paper that’s very large because I don’t like feeling crowded when I draw. I don’t like to feel the edges of the paper creeping in. I always like to feel that I have more room to fiddle and explore. I also don’t draw everything on one page. I cut things out.

BC: I’m confused. What do you mean?
JH: I don’t draw my strips on a single page. I used to, but when I made mistakes too much erasing caused the paper to wear and thin. Now, I draw all the elements separately on one large sheet like a shopping list, and then cut them out with a scissors arranging them how I like. If something needs to be changed I can just switch things out.

BC: That seems kind of brilliant, but also very strange. Who else does that?
JH: No one that I know of.

(from Watson.)

BC: Do you ever re-use elements in your strips? Re-use clippings from other comics?
JH: Very rarely; not if I don’t have to. If I’m crunched for time, maybe I’ll re-use a little something, but I don’t like to do that. If you don’t re-create the elements of the strip, then the strip doesn’t grow. When you draw a comic strip, nearly every element of the strip changes with time. It’s seldom intentional. It’s just an inherent process of applying your mind to the same thing over and over again. It’s very much like a giant ship turning in the ocean or water boiling on the stove. The process is very gradual, but if you look back over time the differences are quite clear. I very seldom make conscious choices to change the look of the strip, but when you look back you can see that those changes are both gradual and inevitable. That’s why I like to keep drawing. When I do, I know that process is at work whether I want it to be or not. I’m interested in having it do the things it does, the small little turns that I don’t see happening. — I’m waiting for it to make the strip better.

BC: So, you draw the strip by hand and color it digitally?
JH: Yes. I color it in Photoshop.

BC: What kinds of pens do you use?
JH: Different kinds. I’ve been very into flexible-tipped brush pens for the past few years. They work very well. Although the brand I use is designed to be disposable, I’ve learned that I can leave the empties soaking upside down in a shot glass of ink so the internal inkwell refills. The ink I use is thinner than the ink that comes standard in the pens, but I’ve learned to correct my inking to manage it. I can always tell when I’m inking with a new pen or one that’s been refilled. The refilled pens glide much faster. I prefer a bit more drag when I ink. Using toothier paper also slows the pen down a bit. There are lots of little tricks one can use.

BC: How do you approach that blank sheet of white paper when you decide to start your next strip?
JH: After I finish a strip, I usually give myself a few hours to relax, and then re-raise my mental antennae to start receiving new ideas. As long as I’m moving around and interacting with things, ideas usually come to me. I have a mental queue of about two-to-three jokes and fiddle with them a bit on my little pads before committing one to a strip. When it’s time to draw, whichever idea is the best makes it out into the world. I seldom come back to old ideas that were in the queue, but it happens every so often.

(from Watson.)

BC: How long have you been drawing Watson?
JH: It first stated appearing online in 2010, but I’d been working on it as early as 2007. It’s been at least 10 years, but it’s only really been up-to-speed in a way that I feel good about for the past 4-5 years. As an artist, my work is never done. As long as I’m producing the strip it will always continue to grow.

BC: Since 2010, it seems like the look of the strip has changed a lot. The strip has used different dimensions, paper quality, line-art, and tone. Where do these ideas for the shifts in the strip come from? What rules or schedule guides the changes?
JH: There’s no schedule, per se. Different ideas flow into the mix from many different places. If I stumble upon something that interests me and that idea can be represented visually, or in the context of the strip, then I’ll implement it to develop the strip as best I can.

JH: The old paper series that you mentioned was probably the most memorable period, visually, that I’ve worked on so far. I had this idea that we tend to experience most things as brand-new, and looking at old comics that are visually decayed, in a sense, plays with the readers’ sense of nostalgia, which I think is true. – Other visual elements have floated in and out, of course, and as I said the strip continues to grow. Visually, I like where the strip is right now, but I’m always open to new muses and ideas as they float in through the window.

BC: Your readers are called “Watsoneers,” correct?
JH: Yes.

BC: What’s the most common trait that Watsoneers share? Who reads Watson?
JH: Based on what I’ve seen, Watsoneers tend to be thoughtful, kind, open-hearted, and fun-loving. My readers are very good-natured, creative, kind, and sweet people. There are some who read, comment on, and share every strip I draw. In that sense I’m very lucky.

BC: Is it true you worked for The Onion?
JH: Yes. I was a headline writer from 2001-2004, when the offices where still in the Mid-West. It was a lot of fun.

(The *ni*n.)

BC: Any Onion stories?
JH: I was hired by the then Editor-in-Chief, Robert Siegel, who wrote the screenplay for the Oscar-nominated Mickey Rourke film “The Wrestler.” The Onion never published its address, so if you didn’t know where the office was you probably didn’t belong there. As I recall, it might’ve been against the rules for Onion staff to tell non-Onion people where the office was; that seems right. Most of The Onion people that I worked with have gone on to other areas: SNL, The Daily Show, Comedy Central, etc. – The Onion’s a good place to pass through if you’re a creative person, writers especially. Most people have heard of The Onion, so it’s a good resume-builder to help open doors if you need it.

(from Watson.)

BC: Have you opened any doors with it?
JH: I use it to open the bathroom door on occasion, and sometimes to rein in the Lazy Susan if it acts up.

BC: Do you have any favorite headlines that you wrote?
JH: None of my personal favorites were ever used because they were too dirty. The ones that were chosen were funny, but not as remarkable. I wrote a lot of headlines about the Silver Surfer. None of them were ever used, but submitting them always made me happy.

BC: Do you remember any of those?
JH: “Brittany Spears annuls marriage to Silver Surfer.” – Oh, that makes me giggle.

(from Watson)

BC: In the comic strip, what kind of dog is Watson supposed to be?
JH: A Labrador.

BC: He’s very floppy.
JH: When my friend Dan Piraro (“Bizarro“) did a cameo day for the strip he sent me a note that said: “For some reason, I always thought Watson was a bloodhound. But then, I thought Snoopy was a balloon animal.” – That made me laugh.

(from Watson)

BC: I get the feeling you draw Watson to be extra floppy on purpose. Is that the case?
JH: Of course. Who wants to hug a chair?

BC: I know you mentioned before that you went to art school. How important do you think it is for cartoonists or other artists to have formal training?
JH: Not too important. I had already been drawing comics for many years before I went to art school. I went as a change of pace, but not necessarily to learn how to draw. The most valuable resource I got from art school was just time to work. The social aspect, of course, was also very enjoyable. That said, I think the most important ingredient in most endeavors is probably just persistence. I think practice is the great equalizer in most things. I absolutely believe in the power of the 10,000-hour rule, the notion that one can become good at most anything with roughly ten years of study.

BC: So, in that sense, do you feel art school was a waste?
JH: Lord no. It was great fun. Amazing things happened there. I met amazing people and did things I never would’ve done otherwise. I have the fondest memories of that time.

BC: What are some stories you can tell us?
JH: In my first year, there was an event called “Studio Days,” where faculty members came around to artists’ studios to pop-in to see what folks were working on. I was told that it was common to have little treats waiting as a way to “entertain,” but I wasn’t sure what to get. Most of what I knew about professional artists came from TV and movies, so I wasn’t sure what tone to strike with my professors. I ended up preparing a folding card table with 40 plastic cups of Jack Daniels and 20 packages of Marlboro cigarettes. I thought that’s what artists liked.

(from Watson)

BC: How did that go over?
JH: Most of them thought it was a kind of installation piece, a kind of put-on or something. No one really knew what to make of it. – I do remember the visiting professor from Australia slammed a whole glass of whiskey after the other professors had left. He didn’t take any of the cigarettes, but he did like the booze.

BC: What happened to all the remaining whiskey?
JH: It went back into the bottles and slowly disappeared over the course of my first year.

BC: Was liquor allowed in the studios?
JH: Of course not. What fun is that?

BC: What kind of art did you make in art school? Were you drawing comics?
JH: I did a lot of different things. It was a great, aimless, meandering sort of adventure. At one point, I made a kind of art film that had a scene involving dead bodies. I remember I contacted the head of the anatomy lab at the medical school to see if he would sign-off on it. — We worked it out. He said I could film what I wanted, provided I kept towels over the faces of the cadavers to protect their identities, which I did. In the end, the bodies weren’t an integral part of the film, but it was still a memorable experience. In retrospect, I don’t think I did enough at art school. If I could do it all over again I’d have twice as much fun. I was much too sedate.

BC: What was the most important thing you learned in art school?
JH: How to make a martini.

BC: Funny. Who taught you that?
JH: My adviser, David Becker. Learning to mix a martini without bruising the gin can be tricky. Not everyone can do it.

BC: So, what’s the secret?
JH: Go to art school. — You’ll see.

(from Watson)

BC: Do you have any stories or gossip about other cartoonists you can tell us?
JH: I was very friendly with the late cartoonist Roy Doty. I would always see him once a year at the annual cartoonists’ event, The Reubens, which is like our version of The Oscars. One year, I told Roy that I was worried about my career and asked if there was any advice he could give me to help set my mind at ease. Roy put his hand on top of my head and said, “There! I’ve blessed you. Now you’ll be a success. You can stop worrying.” From then on that got to be our regular routine; whenever I saw him at The Reubens he would always bless me. He passed on in 2015. That was very sad. He was a lovely person.

BC: How many times did Roy bless you?
JH: Three.

BC: Did it work?
JH: Oh, yes.

(Jim and Dan.)

BC: Do you follow any other comic strips right now?
JH: I follow the strips of my close friends as a way to see what they’re doing. I read “Bizarro” by Dan Piraro. “WaynoVision” by Wayno. “Arctic Circle” by Alex Hallat… And, a few others. I don’t spend as much time reading comics as I should. I’m a poo-poo head in that regard.

BC: What do you look for when you read someone else’s strips?
JH: Honesty, clarity, and ingenuity. Personally, I enjoy strips that are a little more airy than overly tight. I like the idea of simplicity in a strip, even though I sometimes having trouble maintaining it myself.

BC: What do you think makes for a good comic?
JH: Simplicity. Economy, And, the truth. – Big crazy hands are funny, too.

BC: Which of your works are you most proud of?
JH: My children.

BC: If your strip had a soundtrack, what would it be?
JH:I like the sound of a distant train at night. If there’s a slight current of howling wind underneath, that makes it even better. It’s not a song, per se, but it’s a sound I really like; it’s best heard from a dark room under a warm blanket.

BC: Do you have any projects coming up?
JH: I’ll be starting dinner in a few hours. I can set some extra plates, but I’ll need to know how many are coming.

BC: Want to promote your sites?
JH: Yes. Everyone should come visit the REAL JIM HORWITZ –
At the Facebooks: www.facebook.com/WatsonComics
And at the intertubes: www.watsonstrip.com

(All artwork here has been reproduced with the permission of the artist. Copyright Jim Horwitz (c) 2016.)
(This interview is the copyright (c) of Curtis H. Hoffmann and Jim Horwitz 2016. It may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of the author(s).)
(The dinner was great, by the way. You should have been there. It was BYOB (Bring your own bagel). But, you really need to watch the elevators…)