It’s been a busy year for Nick Bertozzi. 2007 saw two new graphic novels out from the New York-based cartoonist, both followed by extensive promotional touring including reading sessions, book signings and panel discussions at various conventions and book stores. Endeavours such as these of course reflect the growing interest in the graphic novel, and the continuous climb of the art form as a whole – and it’s a climb that in no small measure can be attributed to the bold experiments of Bertozzi’s generation.
Having largely discarded both the stylistics and the contents of genre-based comics, the avant-garde of today’s comic book artists have embarked on a seemingly boundless foray into the mechanics of what constitutes great storytelling and great art. Judging from his two new books, The Salon and Houdini: The Handcuff King, 37-year-old Nick Bertozzi seems to find at least part of the answer in historical events.
Having self-published a number of books and contributed to various anthologies (most notably French publisher L’Association’s international Comix 2000), Nick Bertozzi broke the mold in 2000 with the ingenious fold-out comic Boswash, which garnered him the prestigious Ignatz Award. As a result, he soon found a new home with independent publisher Alternative Comics, who only a year later put out The Masochists, a promising if not entirely successful collection of graphic short stories. In 2002 Alternative Comics presented the first issue of Nick Bertozzis ongoing comic book Rubber Necker, in which small vignette-like stories surrounded the main attraction, the as yet unfinished story “Drop Ceiling” (which can be read in its entirety here).
After four issues of Rubber Necker, numerous anthology contributions and recognition in the form of Ignatz and Harvey Awards (and a nomination for an Eisner Award), Bertozzi really hit it home this year with two new graphic novels. Written by Jason Lutes and published through James Sturm’s Center for Cartoon Studies, Houdini: The Handcuff King chronicles a day in the life of the world’s most famous escape artist. The book, which is obviously aimed at younger audiences, lets you in on a few of the secrets behind Houdini’s acts without jeopardizing an ounce of the mystery and magic that surrounded the man himself. Houdini: The Handcuff King makes for a fascinating read, albeit a short one.
A much broader scope is offered in the simultaneously published The Salon, which Bertozzi wrote himself. The 200-page book is a rare gem focusing on the birth of Cubism. The Salon especially examines the ambivalent relationship between Picasso and Braque, but also delves into the lives of other members of the famous Bateau lavoir group that gathered around Gertrude Stein in 1907 Paris. Bertozzi deftly blends historical facts into his wildly fictional tale of a blue absinthe that makes it possible for the consumer to literally dive into the scenery of any given painting and participate in the action. It’s a helluva ride, really.
Mr. Bertozzi lives in New York, where he also teaches in the art of creating comics at The School of Visual Arts. As a member of the on-line comics community ACT-I-VATE, he is currently serializing his first attempt at a science fiction story, “Persimmon Cup”. Upcoming books include a Lenny Bruce graphic novel written by Harvey Pekar, and Stuffed!, written by Glen Eichler of the Colbert Report. In his own words, Mr. Bertozzi won’t be able to leave his drawing table for the next year. Still, he was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk to us about artistic submersion and magical resurfacing.
SÃ˜RENSEN: Since many of our Danish readers will be unfamiliar with your work, could you please talk a little about your early work, how you got into comics, and who your initial influences were?
BERTOZZI: Before I could read myself, my father would read Tintin to me as well as comics by R. Crumb (leaving out the sears and flipping past the pages with women getting their heads stuffed in toilets.) From this introduction it was a short jump to making my own comics, Jack Kirby-inspired superheroes and space operas including a very thinly-disguised rip-off of Starblazers (Spaceship Yamato). I dropped comics for a few years to concentrate on music, but I was dragged back in when a friend gave me the first issues of Pete Bagges’ HATE and Dan Clowes’ Eightball. I lucked into a job managing Fat Jack’s Comicrypt and was able to sustain my comics-habit, and began making my own comics again at night. This continued right through my couple of years with DC Comics’ Marketing Department. My first ten years of adult-comic-making were met with very tepid response since I was trying to create comics for an audience rather than trying to please myself. And it wasn’t until I was roommates with cartoonist Dean Haspiel and he smacked me upside the head and told me to make comics for myself that I started getting positive replies from readers.
Other influences on my comics include: Hitchcock, La Planete Sauvage, George Herriman. Terry Gilliam, Käthe Kollwitz, Coen Bros., Hernandez Bros., Bob Odenkirk, Planet of the Apes, and the guy who did album covers for Echo & The Bunnymen.
SÃ˜RENSEN: Your first book, Boswash, is dealing with the problems that arose when the borderline between the U.S. and Mexico had to be drawn. The story was, ingeniously enough, published in the form of a fold-out map. Since then you seem to have settled for a more conventional approach to storytelling. What are your thoughts today on form vs. content? Do comics intrinsically lend themselves towards this sort of “gimmickry”, and, finally, would you be inclined to pull off another diverse publishing format, should the story benefit from it?
BERTOZZI: I think comics are uniquely suited to inventiveness, but that the format should follow the content. In creating Boswash, the story about a map-maker came first and the format came from a lucky viewing of an old mid-1800’s map of the US that suggested to me that the story could be told in map format. I enjoy reading experimental comics and finding techniques that I’d like to incorporate into my own stories, but the comics I find myself returning to most are comics like Tintin, strips that have a very rigid format. I think I respond to these stories since a rigid format allows the story to take precedence and draw the reader completely within their world. It’s not a perfect analogy, but in the same way that text-novels often follow a chapter/paragraph format, comics that are books lend themselves to the kind of reading experience that I want my readers to have. That being said, there’s a lot of room for formal play within a standard comics page. Herriman, Ware, and Winsor McCay are ample proof of that. In The Salon I wanted to give the reader a “seamless” reading experience in which they would enter into the story and never become confused by the format. To that end, each panel was drawn to the measurement of the “Golden Ratio” and since there are four panels on each page, stacked two-over-two, the book itself fits into this ratio. I think that’s in the service of the story and accentuates it via form.
SÃ˜RENSEN: Obviously you have a liking for stories that have an actual historical context as a point of departure. The Salon is clearly a very well researched book with a neat attention to detail, but at the same time you choose to take liberties with some of the historical facts and even create your own sort of counterfactual plot device. Why?
BERTOZZI: I really wanted to learn how Cubism works and I really wanted to figure out how to write a thriller and both of those ideas fit very neatly onto the story-device of painters who jump inside paintings.
Plus, I wanted to draw the characters running, and jumping, and kissing, and fighting and that fits well into a thriller device. That being said, I really tried to work in a ton of factual material and stay true to the spirit of the Story of Cubism.
SÃ˜RENSEN: Why did you choose Picasso and Braque as your main protagonists? Apart from the fact that they did create something decidedly new, what were your main objectives?
BERTOZZI: I initially wanted to make Gauguin the star of the book, but after researching his life I found that he would make a better villain. I then thought about using Matisse as the protagonist, but then it hit me that Picasso and Braque’s relationship would make for a great Abbot and Costello, Mutt and Jeff back and forth that would add depth to the overall dramatic conflict. I really just wanted to know why every art professor raves about these weird paintings.
SÃ˜RENSEN: In The Salon Picasso is portrayed as a brute force-of-nature who stumbles across major breakthroughs almost accidentally and makes things up as he goes along, while Braque is the more analytically based artist, who thinks before he paints, as it were. Which kind of artist do you identify more with?
BERTOZZI: I like to think that the two characters represent both sides of my artistic drive. I know it’s a cop-out but I wish I was more like both of them. In the initial stages I did a lot of thinking about this dichotomy and I was very influenced by the ending of The Lord of the Rings. The idea that Frodo can’t get rid of the ring without Gollum is a simple and beautiful metaphor for a balanced life. You can’t have Good without Evil as you can’t have Cubism without the poles of Braque and Picasso.
SÃ˜RENSEN: The act of immersing oneself : to the extent of losing oneself : in a work of art is given a very literal treatment in The Salon. It is tempting to read the blue absinthe as a metaphorical vehicle for the almost mystical connection that ensues between the reader and any given work of art. Where did the idea of this magical potion stem from?
BERTOZZI: I’m smart enough to realize I’ve got a good metaphor on my hands with the blue absinthe, but I can’t claim to have thought it out beforehand. I liked the idea of entering into favorite paintings and fooling around inside, and the absinthe was a convenient vehicle to get characters there. As I first began to think about the story I considered setting it up so that only Gauguin was entering into the paintings using the absinthe and there would be some doubt on the other characters’ side that Gauguin was really entering into the paintings or that it was just hallucinations brought on by the absinthe rotting his brain.
SÃ˜RENSEN: The final showdown in The Salon takes place within Gauguin’s “Self-Portrait with Halo”. What were your reasons for choosing this particular painting?
BERTOZZI: The only specific reason for choosing that painting was that I wanted to draw a gigantic snake menacing Picasso and Braque once they were inside the painting. Maybe also because the halo is so ironic considering what a bastard Gauguin was and it shows his egotism.
SÃ˜RENSEN: There is a delightful balance and interwovenness between fact and fiction throughout The Salon. But the fictional part is given much more attention halfway through the book. Do you feel you arrived at what you set out to do initially with the book?
BERTOZZI: My intent in creating The Salon was to show that artists do not invent art movements from whole-cloth, artists do not stand on a mountain waiting for god to zap them with a lightning-bolt of creation. Artists arrive at successes through a long process that is legendarily difficult (Van Gogh) but also, I imagine, very fun (Picasso was a real joker.) Though the last half of the book is very much fiction, it was necessary to show in a compressed amount of time the effect that creating an artistic movement has on Braque and Picasso’s friendship.
SÃ˜RENSEN: Picasso and Braque were constantly struggling and striving to come up with new modes of expression, new ways of presenting perception, but at the same time they were also preoccupied by the idea of the autonomy of the artwork itself. Did you deliberately intend to propose similarities between the pioneering work of the duo and the modern day cartoonists at work?
BERTOZZI: The similarities are absolutely intentional. One of the ideas that I was trying to get at with this book is that no artist’s journey is a straight line. Picasso’s progression, as powerful as his passion is said to have been, could not have achieved what he did without a struggle.
And modern-day cartoonists have to struggle along in this same manner. I dislike the idea that Picasso was born as a genius and THE SALON is a reaction to that idea. Certainly he was fantastically talented, but he also worked very, very hard and was very, very lucky. Two things a good cartoonist needs.
SÃ˜RENSEN: Given the success of The Salon can we expect further adventures from the Bateau-lavoir-group?
BERTOZZI: I’ve told the story I want to tell with this group, but someone suggested I should try my hand at the Dadaists!
In 2004 Bertozzi involuntarily became involved in a legal dispute when a comic book dealer in Rome, Georgia inadvertently handed out a copy of a book featuring an excerpt from The Salon to a minor during the annual Free Comic Book Day. The excerpt pictured Picasso in the nude, and the dealer, Gordon Lee, was promptly prosecuted for distributing obscene material to minors. Now in its third year, the Gordon Lee case is set to go to trial in November this year. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is backing Gordon Lee legally and financially.
SÃ˜RENSEN: What are your thoughts on the Gordon Lee case?
BERTOZZI: It’s a case of going after a mosquito with a cannon. I understand that there will always be people who want to limit others’ freedoms, but this is a mockery of justice. I get very angry thinking that the folks of Rome, Georgia have been hoodwinked into paying to prosecute this travesty.
SÃ˜RENSEN: Could one view the Gordon Lee case as a sort of dying breath of the mechanisms that invoked The Comics Code? Would a case like this have been raised if it were a novel or a movie that had been passed along to a minor, or is it simply a token of some people not being able to adjust to the fact that comics can address adult issues?
BERTOZZI: I can’t speak to the intent of the prosecution but I do know that the price of freedom of speech is having to constantly defend it. A critical thinker would ask himself, What is there to gain from such prosecution? Who benefits from the business of a tax-payer and an employer being shuttered in their town?
SÃ˜RENSEN: The Gordon Lee case is in its third year now, and another trial is up next month. What do you expect the outcome to be?
BERTOZZI: I expect the CBLDF to persevere. But more than that, I hope that this very costly lesson in civics will not adversely effect the children at the center of the case.
SÃ˜RENSEN: Let’s move on to your other new book, Houdini: The Handcuff King, which you created together with Jason Lutes. How did that collaboration come about; who did what, and finally: how was it working with Lutes?
BERTOZZI: The great cartoonist James Sturm asked me if I’d be interested in drawing a book about Houdini from Jason Lutes’ thumbnail drawings and would I be interested in being paid to do this. I immediately said yes, since the opportunity to work with and learn from two of the best cartoonists going is not one to turn down. And since I’d just finished drawing a comic set in 1907, and the Houdini book takes place in 1908, I wouldn’t have to do much new research! I made very few changes from Jason’s thumbnails which are the Gold Standard of comics as far as I’m concerned.
SÃ˜RENSEN: Houdini: The Handcuff King is clearly aimed at a younger audience. It’s easy to read, and there’s an educational ring to it to the extent that it even contains an explanatory appendix attempting an historical overview. What are your views on comics as instructional tools? Are they ideally suited for educational purposes, and is it something you would like to pursue?
BERTOZZI: I don’t see any distinction between story and education. A good educator knows how to tell a story and a good story educates. I think that comics can be used for educational purposes to reach those people like myself, people who learn visually.
SÃ˜RENSEN: The artistic approach in Houdini is very different from the one found in The Salon. Where the latter is graced by a lot of hatchings and shading and a meticulous attention to detail, there seems to be a lighter and very straight forward, almost ligne claire-like sensibility to the artwork in Houdini. How do you know when you’ve nailed the right mode of expression for any given story?
BERTOZZI: I knew the book would be for children so I wanted it to be as clear as possible. Also, I knew that the book would be printed with a graytone so that allowed me to model the characters with the gray. I don’t think I ever know for sure that I’ve nailed the right mode of expression for a story, it just feels more right than wrong.
SÃ˜RENSEN: Houdini seems to have inspired a lot of artists working in and around the comic book field in recent years. The protagonist of Jason Lutes’ Jar of Fools is obviously based on Houdini, Paul Pope’s Escapo draws heavily on his accomplishments, and Michael Chabon’s The Escapist would not have happened without him. Why this sudden interest in a long since gone magician? Can Houdini be seen as the missing link between the superhero genre of yesteryear and the diverse output of today’s artists trying to find a plausible subject matter for The Great American Graphic Novel?
BERTOZZI: Houdini was more than a magician, he was the preeminent showman of his day. He, like Picasso, was one of the first to grasp the notion of modern celebrity and how to manipulate it. This could account for why we are so much more aware of these two than prior magicians and artists. It’s been said that the Mona Lisa is considered such a masterpiece because it was one of the first paintings to be reproduced in color. Houdini and Picasso were there at the right juncture in time and they made the most of it.
SÃ˜RENSEN: Judging from your blog it has been a busy spring and summer for you with numerous reading sessions, book signings, panel discussions, interviews and conventions. How do you feel about this part of the job? And whatever happened to the shy, secluded comic book artist?
BERTOZZI: I don’t mind talking about The Salon and The Handcuff King because I think they’re really good books. I stopped having trouble with public speaking after my first week of teaching at The School of Visual Arts.
SÃ˜RENSEN: For years and years comic book readers and creators alike have been moaning about lack of acceptance on behalf of the art form. Now, it seems, comic books like your own are finally receiving the attention they deserve. As a creator, do you feel that comics have finally gained a voice in the broader cultural discourse, or is there still something left to be desired in terms of recognition?
BERTOZZI: I would point your readers to the amazing, and recently published book Reading Comics by Douglas Wolk for a more articulate answer than I could ever give to your question.
SÃ˜RENSEN: Many of the artists that helped formulate the modern breakthrough in American comics have either been working in direct opposition to, or incorporated references to mainstream comics, whereas the artists of your generation seem to have a wholly different agenda that is totally detached from the mainstream. What are your thoughts on corporate business comics? Would you, like James Sturm for example, agree to work for a company like Marvel Comics, should the opportunity arise?
BERTOZZI: One of my favorite comics for a long time has been Jack Kirby’s Kamandi and I even got to write a Kamandi story for DC’s Bizarro Comics several years ago that was drawn by Tom Hart. For me, what makes Kirby different from much of the mainstream is that he wasn’t after Beauty, he was after power and Kineticism and Experience. With mainstream comics dominated by a style bathed in a patina of beauty, there’s not much room for an artist like myself who couldn’t draw or write beautiful if he tried. And I have tried! I’ve pitched stories to DC and Marvel (I did have a single Juggernaut story appear in X-Men Unlimited a few years back, drawn by Dean Haspiel), but with little consequence. I was told by an editor that I “just want to ruin [superheroes]”! I’ve come to realize that while I love science fiction and fantasy and superheroes, if I were to tell a story in those genres, it would have to be my way, with a deep undercurrent of human experience. Even Batman has to sneeze, right?