John Roberson is
a cartoonist living in the Bay Area. His cartoons pop up here
at spark-online.com quite a bit. For those interested in cartooning,
and the motivations of cartoonists, here begins a serialized
interview with Mr. Roberson.
You've said that you were born in Seattle, but raised in Charleston,
South Carolina, much to your regret. Can you explain why this
was much to your regret?
Well, yeah Charleston, it's a wonderful museum, but you wouldn't
want to live there. The whole thing about Charleston is that,
it's very genteel, old south. It's just not a pleasant place
to be, unless you want to be exactly like . . . it's not like
they're trying to enforce anything on you, it's more like,
they don't understand why anyone would act any differently
than they normally do, so any sight of [acting different]
is a threat. It's a subtle thing, a quiet thing. It's not
like they go right in your face with it. It's more like[when
people break the norm] you get looks like you just told an
Amish person Jesus was Jewish.
did your parents do there?
My father had a string of jobs. He never really had a steady
job, most of what he did was in television. He sold advertising
for TV. And my mom has been a nurse all her life. She just
recently retired because she got multiple sclerosis. Basically,
my entire childhood was spent in TV stations or hospitals,
as a result.
you recall your first exposure to art or comics?
Well, there were always comics around when I was a kid. It
was mostly like Shazam type stuff. When I was young, Neal
Adams was still doing Batman, which was kind of a cool
thing. The most interesting thing was that DC was trying to
stop a union in the early '70s, so they started doing massive
amounts of reprints. Well, I was a kid at that time, so what
I read where the 100 page giants, the big old tabloid stuff-reprints
of the Golden Age stuff. So basically, I saw the history of
comics in its chronological order, which is a nice advantage
to have. When I got older, I found most of the new stuff stupid
aside from comics, what was your first reaction to art?
Well, comics would have been the first art [I was exposed
to] along with literature. When I was a kid, one of my favorite
books was The Phantom Tollbooth, which is fairly common,
as well as pretty much anything by Roald Dahl. As I got older,
when I was a teenager, I ended up hitting people like Harlan
Ellison and Ayn Rand, but that faded. They have a peculiar
hold when you're a teenager, which is unfortunate but true.
I could get into Ayn Rand, because if you live in the South,
she seems liberal in comparison. She hates religion, so that
in itself means that she's "something that you shouldn't
be reading!" But when you go out into the rest of the
world, you find out that it's about the most vicious right-wing
crap you could possibly read. I was into her for about six
months. She's not unlike the kind of stuff that Dave Sim writes,
when he's doing his text things. It's very much like that.
It's one theory to explain everything. Except she convinces,
that's the difference. Whereas he's incapable of doing so.
But the book that started me writing was John Irving's The
World According to Garp.
were you drawing as a child too?
I was drawing the whole time that I was a kid. Mostly in the
endpapers of my parents books, unfortunately for them, with
crayons and stuff. I drew from a very early age. A cartoonist
is what I had originally intended to be. I changed to just
writing when I was in high school.
this when an interest in drama came into the picture?
Yes, that was when it happened. Like most adolescents, I was
in a bit of turmoil. And I didn't want to do art anymore.
Being in the art classes in school just totally bummed me
out, because that was where the bullies decided to get their
free elective. They weren't interested in doing anything.
I was just sitting there, ya know, minding my own business,
doing line after line with my little set of rapidographs,
and they'd come up and screw around with me. They'd take my
pens, they'd literally stand there and fart in my face. I
got in trouble for objecting, detention actually. Which only
goes to show that bullies are tolerated because that's when
they're learning to be bosses. [High School] establishes the
class system in your mind very early on, and that's they way
it's supposed to be for the rest of your life. That's why
they allow them to do these kinds of things.
So, I went to the
theater department where I assumed that I wasn't going to
find anyone like that. And I didn't. And the thing was, at
the time I liked acting because it allowed me to yell a lot.
I would do bits from Amadeus, for instance.
you're allowed to yell for a purpose.
Exactly. Nobody can yell "Shut up!" because there
I was on stage as a character.
That was the scam, yes (laughs). So, I managed to make use
of it as a vehicle for emotional catharsis. But as I got older,
when I actually went off to a conservatory to learn it seriously,
it was the first time I had encountered stage fright ever.
I just didn't want to [act]. I didn't want to and couldn't
do it at that point. But I'd already started writing at that
you were serious enough with acting to go to school for it
in Chicago. What was it like to live in Chicago, as opposed
to South Carolina?
Chicago's a wonderful city. It's extremely cold nine months
of the year, but so what. The people are easy to talk to.
It's basically like what New York is like, but with a lot
less attitude. It's easier to live, because it's not so crowded.
There's a lot of people in Chicago, but Chicago sprawls. You
can live in Chicago but not feel like you're being crowded.
It's just a really great city. The food is awesome.
Again, the people are easy to talk to. I find about California
that people tend to live in their little bubbles and they
very rarely intersect with other bubbles. Like, you meet someone
here, you think you've made a friend, and then they forget
they've even met you five seconds later. [Chicago is not]
like that at all. Much warmer place. I guess because it's
cold, people have to stay inside and be kind of social.
such a great variety of cartoonists have come from there [Dan
Clowes, Chris Ware, Ivan Brunetti, Archer Prewitt, Jessica
Abel, Terry Laban, and more].
I remember actually when I was living there, I met Dan Clowes,
once when I was first trying to start doing comics again.
My last attempt in 1990. And the thing ishe was totally
right about itbut it pissed me off at the time. He said
it was too muddy. He couldn't tell what was going on. And
I've gone back and looked at my work from that time, and he
was right, it was muddy.
get back to why you decided to become a playwright as opposed
to an actor. What about writing was interesting to you?
It seemed to me to be a very simple thing. For one thing,
when I was an actor, I always got the crusty old man parts.
When I was in high school, I ended up playing Dussel, the
crusty old dentist in The Diary of Anne Frank. And
the ultimate humiliation, we did a version of 1984, and I
didn't get Winston Smith! I got Goldstein, who's on a TV monitor.
The guy who did get it by the way was a blond guy, which was
really kind of strange. I mean, I was the skinny one who looked
like he hadn't eaten in days.
I figured, why should
I go up on stage, and make a complete ass of myself, when
instead I could write something for a whole group of people
to make asses of themselves, and be in the crowd laughing
at them! I figured that was a more evil thing to do, so I
figured that writing was better.
about controlling what you're doing as a playwright, as opposed
to being an actor?
Well, that's the interesting issue. The actor, ironically
enough, ends up with most of the control. The problem with
theatre is that directors love to change things. Because some
directors think they're writers. They don't think that interpreting
a work, and giving it form, is enough. They have to actually
go and retool it. I ran into that a lot. That's actually what
"Vitriol" came out of. The original version of the
script was just a description of how the play got destroyed.
So, as a writer, I felt like I had more control, but the fact
is I didn't. Once it was in the director's hands, he could
do whatever he wanted. Whereas the actor who's on stage could
potentially change his entire scene right there and nobody
could do anything about it. So, I guess what I thought was
that I could do more, but I ended up being able to do far
with cartooning you can actually do much more. What's similar
about playwriting and cartooning?
Yeah. This is actually kind of a fascinating point to me.
[Cartooning and playwriting] are really not that different.
The scripts I write are...well, here. [holds up just script
of "Vitriol."] If you'll look at this, you'll see,
there's no panel description. There's really barely any description.
[Most mainstream American comics work from a full script,
with detailed descriptions from the writer to the artists
of what must go in every panel.]
really like a play script.
Yes, which was what it was originally. The thing is that I
like to have a full script before I start. But, there's really
no difference, as long as you're the one drawing it. As long
as you're the one who's actually staging it on paper. That's
really what it's about. Most of my stuff is made up of long
takes, because I prefer for the characters to be able to talk
to each other for a while. And, little things they say [are
important to me], as opposed to the way that some writers
will just cut to the most pertinent statements. I've heard
Terry Moore [a popular self-publishing cartoonist] describe
what he does as doing it that way. I prefer to let them move
and interact within a scene. And it doesn't seem to me that
that's exclusive to comics. Some people don't like long takes.
I prefer it.
could be running the risk of having too many talking heads.
Assuming you're not letting [the characters] move, yes. I
try to move them around. Coming from a theater background,
you have to remember that every single moment they have to
be doing something that you can watch, that's hopefully telling.
And when I was doing theater, you had to do things like blocking,
and figuring out the choreographing moments. It's actually
not at all different from the way things are done in comics.
As long as you're not doing quick cutting. I try to look at
my characters as actors.
actors you have complete control over.
Right, exactly. And I can make their expressions do whatever
I want. They won't get it wrong next time, because there's
only one time. So, basically, the reason I like to do comics
is because it serves my taste for megalomania (laughs). I'm
just a very controlling person. If I was a filmmaker, I would
have been like Kubrick. I would have stayed away from everybody,
and just done what I wanted to do, the way he did it. But,
that's just the way I prefer it. It gives you the ability
to be flexible. It's like the chord changes in a jazz piece.
You have them, and you know what the structure of them is,
and the order they're supposed to go in. Where you need to
then you can riff off of it.
Exactly, exactly. You can riff of the top of it. Half of the
lines in the script don't even end up in the actual comic.
were the similarities between playwriting and comics, coupled
with the advantages comics offered what made you go back into
Well, the main reason is because I have a massive amount of
projects that I'm never gonna get done any other way. Most
of my problemscertainly my main problem throughout my
twentieswas figuring out the right medium. I've learned
a little bit about a whole bunch of different media. I had
the stories, but I couldn't figure out which medium would
work best. At first I thought, "Well, what would people
want to see?" and then after a while I just said, "Screw
it, I'll do it the way I want to do it."
When I started [doing
comics] again, I was in the middle of writing a novel. The
second one I've attempted. [An updated version of this novel
can be seen on Roberson
John's Web site.] But I got stalled. I got so bagged
down in the words, and revising them. And revising them. And
revising them over and over again. I just got sick of it.
I just couldn't stand it. So I thought, "Well, I really
do want to create, but I don't really feel like writing. What
do I do?" So, I just decided that I'd attempt to do some
comics. So, I went and got some supplies, came home, and looked
through a number of the scripts I had, and found the one that
looked like it would be the easiest one to start with, which
that worked out.
It worked out beautifully. It was a lot of fun, for one thing.
It was the first time I'd had fun writing something in a very
why did you decide to self-publish?
Because I really don't have any interest in trying to change
the book to suit a market. I know what the story is. I want
it to be a certain way. Also, at the time, I was very much
under Dave Sim's self-publishing ethic [Sim, a maverick and
controversial self-publisher was against artists talking their
work to any publisher, no matter how accommodating that publisher
was]. I still am to some degree, as far as what he says about
discipline in your work. I was, at one time, trying to make
it into a bigger thing. But at this point, it's just like,
I do it, I manage to print it, and the people who want it
can get it. And for me, that's enough at the moment. It's
just that I wanted control of what I did. I still have a day
job and all that, but this is one of the few things where's
it's mine. It's what I want. And I don't see why I should
put a talking robot in it to make some anonymous person in
the audience happy.
what are your ambitions in comics? Will you be content to
self-publish Plastic, and sell it to a good size audience,
while working a part time job, or do you want someone like
a Top Shelf or Fantagraphics to eventually publish your work
so you could quit your day job?
Roberson: Oh, of course I'd
like that. I would easily work for another publisher, as long
as they understood what I was doing, that I was allowed to
follow it properly. I couldn't stand having to alter it for
commercial reasons. Artistic reasons I understand. I've never
had a problem with altering things if they didn't work. But,
the stupid attempts that some comic companies make, not the
ones you mentioned, but others use to change something that
they think will make the book work, but ends up making it
not sell at all. In fact, it makes the book lose the audience
it already has. I just don't trust their opinions because
the industry's dying! They were pursuing the most commercial
course they possibly could, and look what happened.
Copyright © 2001 Austin English. All
Austin English is a California based writer