JAY STEPHENS ANSWERS 15 QUESTIONS WITH JULINDA MORROW
Jay Stephens is one of my favourite artists. His style is chock-full of charm, highlighting the many cartoon influences that have shaped his world.
Jay’s The Land of Nod series should be mandatory reading for all comic book aficionados. He has been nominated for an Eisner, a Harvey and an Annie award, and he has seen his animated TV show Tutenstein win an Emmy.
A gallery of Jay’s energetic art follows this interview.
Julinda Morrow: What path led you to comics and sequential art?
Jay Stephens: I simply loved comics and animation as a kid. But I didn’t grow up thinking I would be a professional cartoonist. I had no idea how somebody would go about doing that! Instead, I decided to become a “serious” artist, and enrolled at the Ontario College of Art. But comics hunted me down and stole me from a career as a painter.
JM: What schooling or training did you receive?
JS: As an artist? One and a half years of Art School. As a cartoonist? None. Nothing. The schools and programs you see today offering education in sequential storytelling just didn’t exist back then. I’m self-taught.
JM: Who, in your opinion, are the pioneers of sequential art?
JS: This could be a very long list. Pioneers are born every day! If we go back to the beginnings of North American cartooning, I’d say two of my heroes who get far less attention than they ought to are Palmer Cox and Jimmy Swinnerton; Ub Iwerks and Otto Mesmer for early animation, an importantly related field at the time. Later, I think Hal Foster, Chester Gould, Harvey Kurtzman, Milton Caniff, Charles Addams, Will Eisner, Robert Crumb, Jack Kirby, and Charles Schulz made pretty big impacts. I’m forgetting as many as I’m listing, and could keep this going forever. Modern pioneers? I think Gary Panter, Chester Brown, Lynda Barry, Los Bros Hernandez, Charles Burns, and John Kricfalusi changed the game in the 80′s. And should we talk about the European or Asia comics’ scene? Osamu Tezuka, Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima, Shigeru Mizuki, Kazuo Umezu, Go Nagai, etc.? This is a tough thing to pin down.
JM: How do you define sequential art?
JS: A pretentious way of saying, “cartooning”.
JM: Do you find that sequential art provides you with near-limitless possibilities for storytelling or do you experience it as constraining? Please elaborate.
JS: It is limitless. To elaborate: the art form of visual storytelling is without end, limit, or boundary. I got that definition of “limitless” off the Internet.
JM: What qualities or resources do you believe are most important for a sequential storyteller to have?
JS: Courage, mostly. If you don’t have the guts to get started – the bravery required to put out work that isn’t “perfect” – you will never succeed. The rest, as I’ve demonstrated, can be learned through trial and error. You just need to be willing to do the error part.
JM: How do you approach your work process?
JS: I stew on ideas for months or years until they ferment with other half-baked characters and situations. Then I give birth to them slowly and painfully without an epidural. This will sound stupid, but it’s an organic, intuitive kind of process where everything really comes together at the same time when it’s ready. I overprepare, and then totally wing it.
JM: How many hours a day do you work? Are you uniformly productive on any given day or more productive on some days than others?
JS: I’m semi-retired after twenty-plus years of freelancing. I work on cartooning whenever I want.
JM: Was it a struggle, at the start of your career, to find work and make ends meet?
JS: Evan Dorkin told me when I was starting out that it takes a good five years of starving while working your ass off to “arrive”, and he was right. Until then, you’re just some nobody. After that, you are a definable cartoonist. But the last year I did this full-time was much harder than the first year, believe it or not.
JM: What has been your most valuable professional experience?
JS: Constant failure. Keeps you hungry. Makes you feel you still have something to prove.
JM: What inspires or informs you creatively?
JS: Music, film, nature, dreams. I started out obsessed with old comics and cartoons, and that was what initially drove me. But I soon found myself too restricted with being inspired only by other comics. For many years now, my inspiration comes from anywhere but other comics. I actually loathe talking about comics with other cartoonists!
JM: What is your position on digital comics? Are they a good thing or a bad thing?
JS: Neither. The delivery and distribution system is irrelevant and totally separate from the art form itself. Who cares how someone gets their comics? We just want them to be awesome comics.
JM: If you were to make any changes to the industry or the market what changes would you make?
JS: I haven’t the slightest idea what the “market” needs, and I never have. And we need to be more specific. Which “industry” are we talking about? So-called “mainstream” comics? Newspaper strips? Children’s picture books? Small Press comics? Graphic novels? These are all sequential art stories and they all need different things to be improved. Maybe what they all need the most is the awareness of each other.
JM: If you could apprentice under any artist at any time in history and anywhere in the world who would it be?
JS: Winsor McCay. But I’d be a terrible apprentice. I mentioned earlier that I dropped out of Art School, right?
JM: What, in the future, would you like to accomplish creatively?
JS: Long form comic stories. Something epic. I’m working on it.