JASON LITTLE ANSWERS 15 QUESTIONS WITH JULINDA MORROW
He is a Xeric Grant recipient, an Eisner Award nominee, and the winner of two Ignatz Awards.
A gallery of Jason’s compelling art follows this interview.
Julinda Morrow: What path led you to comics and sequential art?
Jason Little: When I was a child I was lucky to have a few key highbrow cartoon books around the house. My dad had acquired a reprint of Little Nemo Sundays. He is also an obsessive Pogo collector. And he would bring volumes of Tintin home from trips abroad. That laid the groundwork, and then I took some cartooning classes at the local community art center when I was ten, eleven years old. Shortly thereafter I discovered some Zap Comix squirreled away in my dad’s underpants drawer. Those continue to be my main areas of interest: early strips, European comics and underground comix.
JM: What schooling or training did you receive?
JL: I took drawing and painting classes at Oberlin, but those were not particularly helpful. I ended up doing a lot of printmaking and photography, which got me excited about mechanical image-making processes. While in school I interned at Marvel and at DiC Animation City, and picked up some basic stuff about drawing technique and materials.
JM: Who, in your opinion, are the pioneers of sequential art?
JL: I’ll answer that question two ways: if you mean, like, “a long time ago”, then I like to acknowledge the ancient Aztecs and Mayas and Egyptians and Greeks, all of whom are addressed in Understanding Comics. And, if you mean, like, who are the pioneers today then I would have to say, women. In the SVA cartooning department where I teach, the women students by far outnumber the men, and the women’s work is always way more mature and sophisticated than the guys’. Sorry, guys.
JM: How do you define sequential art?
JL: I like McCloud’s definition, except that he excludes single images. I include single images because I feel that you can succeed in creating a complete narrative with just one image.
JM: Do you find that sequential art provides you with near-limitless possibilities for storytelling or do you experience it as constraining
JL: Comics can’t recreate sound, we’re reliant on readers to imagine sound to go with the comics. Fortunately for me, though, I regularly perform cartoon slide shows, particularly with R. Sikoryak’s Carousel, and I like to make elaborate sound effects and music beds to go with the shows.
And I do seasonal animation work, so that allows me to play with moving pictures once in a while.
JM: What qualities or resources do you believe are most important for a sequential storyteller to have?
JL: Right now I’m very big on critical and analytical thinking. I think it’s important to be able to examine a work of art and try to figure out what component parts are actively making it interesting. That’s analysis. I also think it’s hugely important to be able to examine a work of art and figure out things that are not working and that could be improved: critique. And, of course, [analysis and critique] give one tools for revision. I’m very hot on trying to make my ideas as good as I possibly can before I send them out into the world.
JM: How do you approach your work process?
JL: Lately, I am pushing myself to revise intensively. I go read the piece and mark it up, and then revise, and then I read it again, etc. until I feel like I’ve done all I can. Then I get a second opinion, and then I revise again, and then I move on to the next stage. Each stage (plot, script, layouts, pencils, inks, color) gets this treatment. I’ve learned to build time into the schedule for each revision.
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?
JL: I used to work between four and eight hours a day during a period when I was also splitting childcare duties with my wife. These days I’m getting up at five in the morning so that I can get ten hours in and be home to hang out with my kids when they get home from school.
I am definitely less productive on days when I’m not able to get up at five. Getting up early is magical.
JM: Was it a struggle, at the start of your career, to find work and make ends meet?
JL: These days I do seasonal animation work to make ends meet, but I’m still playing catch-up from the days when I was looking after the kids. Only now am I realizing how unstructured my work habits have been all these years, and how it has interfered with making a living wage. It’s the price I have paid in being an autodidact cartoonist: I constructed my own idea of what good work habits were supposed to look like. Finally I’m just doing everything the way my studio mates do it.
JM: What has been your most valuable professional experience?
JL: I’ve had that this year, actually. I had my two books come out in French from a publisher called Akileos. Now, the French know how to throw a f***ing comics convention! I’ve gone to two this year, and both times they’ve flown me out, put me up in a nice hotel, and fed me all my meals (and I like to eat in France). At both festivals I worked the entire time signing books hand over fist. And European festivals are much cooler than U.S. conventions in that the emphasis is on incredible gallery shows rather than sales floor.
JM: What inspires or informs you creatively?
JL: Right now I’m looking at a lot of science writing, like The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene, and How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker. I’m also rediscovering science fiction by Robert Heinlein, which was a major pleasure of my teenage years – particularly his work in the early 40s. I’m pretty excited about avant-garde cinema too, particularly stuff like Alejandro Jodorowski’s The Holy Mountain.
JM: What is your position on digital comics? Are they a good thing or a bad thing?
JL: Digital comics are a good thing. Anything to keep the reader […] salivating for more of my comics is a good thing. I’ve been blogging a bit lately, mostly travelogue and process images, but I can’t wait until I can be posting online episodes of a Bee story again.
JM: If you were to make any changes to the industry or the market what changes would you make?
JL: I would put the entire American population into psychotherapy so that they would f***ing loosen up about sex and drugs. That’s the essence of why I’m getting a warmer welcome in France than I ever got at home—Americans are too worried about “protecting” children from facts of adult life. In France they recognize that the transition from childhood to adulthood is a continuum. It makes sense, since our nation was founded by a bunch of religious fundamentalists: the Pilgrims & the Puritans.
JM: If you could apprentice under any artist at any time in history and anywhere in the world who would it be?
JL: Mostly I’d like my younger self to apprentice with my older self so that I could quickly learn all the stuff that it took me years of trial and error to find out.
There was also a time when I really wanted to learn how to oil paint traditionally, the way you do a whole grisaille underpainting, all the modeling in greys, and then glaze color over that. Maybe I’d get Lucas Cranach the Elder to teach me. Even better, how about we arrange for Ron Embleton, who did Oh Wicked Wanda for Penthouse magazine, to give me watercolor lessons.
JM: What, in the future, would you like to accomplish creatively?
JL: My original career vision back in the late ’90s was that I would have a career doing comics that would reach a reasonably wide audience, like Bee, but also have time to do shorter, more experimental work. During the lean/baby years I convinced myself that that was a bats**t idea, that I didn’t have enough time for two comics careers, that I should instead incorporate experimental components into the Bee work. I still believe that but I am also pursuing a schedule where I spend a year on a Bee book and then take four months to experiment on whatever I want.