TED NAIFEH ANSWERS 15 QUESTIONS WITH JULINDA MORROW
Ted Naifeh is the resident comic book master of magic and the mystery.
I first fell in love with Ted’s pen and ink work during his tenure as artist extarodinaire on Gloomcookie. However, he truly put a spell on me with the creation of his most famous character and comic book series, Courtney Crumrin. And dare I say it? I like Courtney’s adventures with the wickedly creepy Night Things more than I do a certain four-eyed wizard and his dreary semesters at a stodgy old school with one too many dysfunctional teachers.
Ted’s accomplishments are varied and impressive. He has illustrated Holly Black’s Trilogy Good Neighbours: co-created How Loathsome, a mature readers graphic novel exploring the queer underworld of San Francisco; and ventured onto the high seas with the all-ages romp, Polly and the Pirates. Ted has also put pencil to paper to illustrate some of DC Comics most revered characters.
What gets this interviewers’ engine running is the knowledge that Ted is creating new adventures for Courtney…which means for you and me, too.
A gallery of Ted’s enchanting art follows this interview.
Julinda Morrow: What path led you to comics and sequential art?
Ted Naifeh: From an early age, it was very obvious to everyone that I wasn’t going to be much good at anything else. Drawing was one of the few things I consistently enjoyed as a teenager. It never felt like a job or an obligation. And in that crucial period of development, I just couldn’t bring myself to do anything that felt like work. As to why I felt drawn to sequential art, I suppose I just always found myself drawn to stories. I think I’m just a storyteller that uses pictures more than words.
JM: What schooling or training did you receive?
TN: I went to Art College for a little while, but never got a degree. Most of my training came from a private art tutor I studied under from an early age. Thank goodness my parents had the foresight to encourage me in the one pursuit I seemed to excel at.
JM: Who, in your opinion, are the pioneers of sequential art?
TN: Honestly, I’m not all that interested in the history of the form. That’s for scholars, who have a better perspective and aren’t as focused on their own personal aesthetics. For me, it’s more important to draw inspiration from whatever sources I find interesting. It doesn’t matter if they’re the best. I’m not interested in art that’s good for me. I’m only interested in art I like. I try not to question too deeply why I like it. Do I think that people like Jack Kirby, or Osamu Tezuka, or Hergé are great innovators? Sure. Does that mean I have to study them and love them? I hope not, because I’m too busy admiring Travis Charest, Claire Wendling, and Roger [Ibañez Ugena].
JM: How do you define sequential art?
TN: I think of it as any collection of juxtaposed images that tell a story when viewed in the correct order. I’m sure you could get broader, or more specific, but I just prefer to think of it like that. Art whose purpose is to tell a story through a series of images. I think a lot of comics artists forget that the story-telling aspect is the reason they were attracted to comics in the first place. Story is often taken for granted, but a bad story will render even the best art meaningless, while a good story elevates even the most mediocre art.
JM: Do you find that sequential art provides you with near-limitless possibilities for storytelling or do you experience it as constraining?
TN: I think that, like any medium, comics have their limits. There’s only so much detail you can include in a comic without spending way too long producing it. It’s hard to capture the complex nuances of emotion in single frames. And if I were to include every detail of action and expression I see in my head, the story telling would slow to a snail’s pace. But certainly, comics have the potential to take you places that you’ve never dreamed. Isn’t it a shame, then, that they so often go back to the same familiar haunts over and over? A medium’s limits aren’t usually the problem. It’s the limits of both creators’ and audience’s imaginations that I often find constraining.
JM: What qualities or resources do you believe are most important for a sequential storyteller to have?
TN: Direct access to the right brain, and the courage to be honest about what one finds there. And a working knowledge of composition and anatomy, that’s important as well.
JM: How do you approach your work process?
TN: For stories, I usually have to wait for inspiration. It rarely works to try and squeeze ideas out of my brain before they’re ready. But under the right circumstances, I can wake up in the morning and sit down at my computer before the idea-factory in the right side of my brain closes down for the day. In those moments the ideas come pouring out, all raw and messy and brilliant. Once I have them where I can see them, it’s much easier to clean them up. Then I convert them to a working script, like a movie script. One of the hardest steps is sketching out the story from the script, taking the chaotic action in my head and making those big decisions to convert it into readable sequential art. It’s exhausting. After that, I redraw the pages in detail. To ink, I tape a bristol board to the penciled page, and use a light table to trace. They say you’re supposed to start inking with the brush and switch to pen after all the blacks are filled out, but I do it the other way around. Then I scan and add word balloons.
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?
TN: It can vary widely. A good, productive day is twelve hours at the table. But some days, life gets in the way. Some people can devote their entire being to one endeavor for years on end, but I need to take breaks and do other things – see people, cook, play ukulele, enjoy life. That’s the stuff that keeps me from feeling like the drawing table is a prison.
JM: Was it a struggle, at the start of your career, to find work and make ends meet?
TN: I still struggle with that. I think of my work as the best minimum-wage job in the world. It’s not like the movie business; there aren’t millions of dollars to be had. I’d love to own a home, to travel more, to have a finer wardrobe, but I can’t complain. I love my work more.
JM: What has been your most valuable professional experience?
TN: For me, it was discovering that I could write my own stories. Writing the first Courtney Crumrin chapter was a life-changing event for me. Collaborating is a large part of the comics business, but I never felt like I ever really expressed myself until the moment I told my own story with my own pictures.
JM: What inspires or informs you creatively?
TN: I often find that badly executed art inspires me the most. Good ideas expressed well can be a wonderful experience, but good ideas expressed badly leave me with a burning desire to succeed where others failed. Some of my favorite moments in stories are the ones that never happened, but should have.
JM: What is your position on digital comics? Are they a good thing or a bad thing?
TN: They are the future, and they may be what saves comics. Once, comics, like pulp fiction, were printed very cheaply in high-volume. As the quality and the price of comics rose, the number of casual readers dwindled. Now, at least in America, it’s a dying format. But digital comics are thriving, growing all the time, and it’s no wonder. They’re incredibly cheap to produce. They can reach as many readers as take an interest. And if they reach a certain level of popularity, they can be reprinted in high quality on real paper. Digital is basically the new pulp. And they’re getting new readers interested in the medium. How could that be a bad thing?
JM: If you were to make any changes to the industry or the market what changes would you make?
TN: I’d like to see more American readers take an interest in material other than superhero comics. The stranglehold that one genre has over the industry is what I think is destroying interest in the medium. I’d like to see more European comics make it to America. I think the right company with the right vision could really catch a wave. I used to think it would be great if bookstores shelved comics along with their regular books, but now, even bookstores are failing, so I don’t think they’re in a position to help. I’ve given up trying to guess what would fix this ailing industry. Right now I’m just doing my thing and waiting to see what happens.
JM: If you could apprentice under any artist at any time in history and anywhere in the world who would it be?
TN: If you’d asked me that question ten or fifteen years ago, I’d have an answer, but I’ve gotten to the point where I just need to apprentice under myself. I’ve found my voice, and I just need to practice. Besides, I don’t think I know any artists who could tolerate my presence long enough to teach me anything. I’ve been told I’m a strong cup of coffee.
JM: What, in the future, would you like to accomplish creatively?
TN: That’s way too big a question. Everything? I no longer want to make a movie or a cartoon or anything like that. But I want to start a web comic. Though I’ve noticed that most web comics are more like comic strips, a gag a week. I’ll have to see if the kinds of stories I write are conducive to the medium. And if I have the persistence to see it through.