JASON LUTES ANSWERS 15 QUESTIONS WITH JULINDA MORROW
It was new comics day at my local store. I was quite friendly with the manager and was helping her unpack boxes of comics and rack them early that morning. I reached into one box and pulled out a copy of Jar of Fools. I was unacquainted with the title and certainly didn’t know who Jason Lutes was. However, by the end of that afternoon I was a fan.
I appreciate Jason’s storytelling approach and the subtle European influences that are revealed in his work. I have thoroughly enjoyed his other comic books—Berlin and Houdini: The Handcuff King—the latter of which was drawn by the talented Nick Bertozzi.
Want to know more about Jason? Check out Drawn and Quarterly’s website.
A gallery of Jason’s accomplished art follows this interview.
Julinda Morrow: What path led you to comics and sequential art?
Jason Lutes: I grew up in Missoula, Montana, reading Tintin, Asterix, and Marvel comics—especially The Avengers and westerns like the Two-Gun Kid. I started trying to copy comics and make my own comics stories at a very early age, probably around 4 or 5 years old. I loved and read comics all the way up through high school but when it came time to apply to college I decided to go to art school, and I put aside comics to pursue “real” art. Luckily, in my second year at the Rhode Island School of Design, I discovered a copy of Art Spiegelman’s Read Yourself Raw in the school bookstore, and I fell right back into comics in a big way.
JM: What schooling or training did you receive?
JL: I graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1991 with a BFA in Illustration. I learned a lot at RISD about drawing, painting, and thinking and talking about art. The first foundation year was an amazing experience, but after I joined the illustration department I was disappointed by the focus on developing a signature style and marketing yourself—essential skills for the working illustrator, but not what I really wanted to learn when I was more interested in telling stories with words and pictures. I started a student comics anthology called Penny Dreadful Comics, and lobbied to get a comics class added to the curriculum. Fortunately, a great instructor there named Russell Jones had wanted to do something along those lines, and he started RISD’s first comics class. I took that class for two semesters in a row.
After graduation, I learned about design as an assistant to the art director at Fantagraphics Books, and later as art director at the Stranger, a free weekly paper in Seattle. My first book, Jar of Fools, was published in weekly installments in that paper over three years. That experience proved to be an education in how to balance intuition and structure in storytelling.
JM: Who, in your opinion, are the pioneers of sequential art?
JL: Too many to name! But I love and have been inspired by the work of Wilhelm Busch, Rodolphe Töpffer, Osamu Tezuka, Hergé, Art Spiegelman, Chester Brown, Ben Katchor, and David Mazzucchelli. Each of these cartoonists moved the medium forward in striking and unprecedented ways.
JM: How do you define sequential art?
JL: I’m not interested in defining comics. What matters to me is how a work of art makes us feel or think, not how we choose to categorize it.
JM: Do you find that sequential art provides you with near-limitless possibilities for storytelling or do you experience it as constraining?
JL: Every medium of expression is, by definition, a set of constraints, and constraint is the catalyst of invention. I enjoy working within, and testing the limits of, comics more than any other medium, so I’m a cartoonist. That being said, while comics has its limits I firmly believe that any kind of story can be told with comics, and that only a small portion of the medium’s potential has been explored to date. It’s exciting to work in a medium where anyone can become a pioneer who wants to. There are new things to discover around every corner.
JM: What qualities or resources do you believe are most important for a sequential storyteller to have?
JL: Each individual storyteller possesses or values qualities, which serve her or his approach to narrative. In my case, I try to observe and understand the world around me as thoroughly as possible in my day-to-day life, and strive to balance intuition with analysis during the actual process of making comics.
JM: How do you approach your work process?
JL: In the case of Berlin, I break the larger story up into chapters, which are more manageable working units. I will tackle a single chapter from start to finish (story notes, thumbnail script, pencils, inks) before beginning the next; though I do know and am constantly revising the overall structure of the entire twenty-two chapters. I sometimes think of my approach to a longer story as a series of signposts set in the ground: the position of those posts (important plot points) doesn’t change but how I move from one to the next (how I tell the story) is highly improvisational.
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: For the past five years, after starting teaching at the Center for Cartoon Studies and having two kids, my personal work schedule has had zero stability. The hours not consumed by child care and a job that pays the bills are few and far between. That being said, a good studio day for me is six hours of uninterrupted drawing (no lunch, no distractions).
JM: Was it a struggle, at the start of your career, to find work and make ends meet?
JL: It was indeed a struggle then and—though I feel somewhat successful in my career —the struggle is ongoing.
JM: What has been your most valuable professional experience?
JL: Teaching at the Center for Cartoon Studies has been (and I expect will continue to be) the most inspiring, exciting, and fulfilling job I could hope for. CCS attracts students who are extraordinarily engaged and talented, and as they push me to be a better teacher, I also become a better cartoonist.
JM: What inspires or informs you creatively?
JL: Besides the experience of teaching a roomful of enthusiastic students, I am most inspired and informed by what I see in the world around me. Secondary to that, I read, listen to, and watch as much as I can.
JM: What is your position on digital comics? Are they a good thing or a bad thing?
JL: They are a thing. The good ones are good, the bad ones are bad. I much prefer to read comics in print.
JM: If you were to make any changes to the industry or the market what changes would you make?
JL: I would makes sure that artists are compensated fairly for their labor, and that they retain at least some ownership of their work in every case.
JM: If you could apprentice under any artist at any time in history and anywhere in the world who would it be?
JL: I would love to have been an assistant to Hayao Miyazaki while he was writing and drawing Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
JM: What, in the future, would you like to accomplish creatively?
JL: I would like to take on more writing and editorial comics jobs, where I collaborate directly with other cartoonists to develop and produce a variety of different stories. I have started to do [that] this summer, by pulling together a group of CCS alumni to produce a seventy-two page, full-color graphic novel in a four-month time frame. The book will be released in PDF form later this year, with a print version to follow.