Saturday, 4 September 2010
Fragmenting Time - The Robert Sergel Interview
After five years of publishing online, Robert Sergel has finally made the jump to print comics. A mere two issues into his ongoing series 'Eschew', Sergel has already proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he's a creator worth his salt.
His stark, meticulously constructed autobiographical comics boast a rare appreciation of form that you'd sooner associate with cartoonists ten years his senior. With such an auspicious start to his publishing career, I thought it was high time I spoke to Robert about 'Eschew' and his evolving approach to comics.
Exquisite Things: The first thing that really struck me about Eschew was your art. It’s very stylised and precise, sharing many common traits with the ‘Ligne Claire’ school of cartooning. I know you often work with photos, creating digital composites to form the basis for your art.
Could you elaborate a little on your visual approach and how it’s achieved?
Robert Sergel: I definitely like things very clean and precise. The art style is something I sort of fell into because I didn’t really know any better. I have a BFA, but it’s in photography, and I got it at a film school where there weren’t really any drawing classes or anything. I got burnt out on taking pictures, so I starting making photo comics instead. Since then I’ve just been trying to find the best way to simplify forms. Around that time I started reading a lot of comics again and got it in my head that it was really important to strip down your images as much as possible. So I just tried to do that. It comes out looking precise because I’m so restrictive in my source material.
Exquisite Things: There’s a great deal of symmetry and rhythm to your comics. Your layouts often adhere quite stringently to a six panel grid, with only the occasional divergence. To me, there seems to be a very strong sense of formal discipline running through your work, whereby your artistic approach always reflects the needs of the story.
What considerations run through your head when you’re working on page layouts?
Robert Sergel: That’s nice you noticed that. I do spend a lot of time making sure pages look good as a whole and that all the panels work in relation to one another. It feels pointless a lot of the time because comics aren’t really absorbed that way.
People go panel to panel and maybe don’t notice page layouts because they’re following a story and want to know what happens. It makes more sense in something like George Sprott, where each spread is its own comic, but in a traditionally-structured narrative I’m not sure how much it matters. It definitely matters to me, though.
Exquisite Things: The majority of your comics seem to draw on personal experiences. What inspired you to focus on the autobiographical as opposed to fiction?
Robert Sergel: I think it just came more naturally to me. I’m better at identifying which stories will work as comics than I am at inventing them. I’ve recently been trying to work on a completely fictional story, and I’m finding that it’s way more difficult. You have to make a ton of decisions to create a comic, and autobiography absolves you of some of that responsibility. You still have to choose the right stories and figure out the best way to tell them, but the question of “what happens” has already been answered for you. So it’s easier in that way. I’d love to do something entirely fictional, but it seems to require a level of imagination that I don’t really have.
Exquisite Things: Following on from that, are your comics a straight retelling of events from your life? Or do you tend to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction?
Robert Sergel: Most of them are things that have happened to me. Sometimes I have to change things slightly for the sake of clarity or dramatic effect. I’m certainly looking less and less like the character all the time. The last story in Eschew #2 is the only one that’s more a conflation of events than a straight retelling.
Exquisite Things: Have you ever read any of Phoebe Gloeckner’s comics? With her books I can never quite tell where her reality ends and the fiction begins. There’s an almost wilfull blurring of the two, and even though she’s always referred to her work as fiction, there are so many parallels between the author and her protagonists that you’ve always second guessing. Are you interested in that kind of ambiguity?
Robert Sergel: I think 'Diary of a Teenage Girl' is the only one I’ve read. I do appreciate that ambiguity, but only because I don’t think “wow, I can’t believe that happened to you” is a very desirable reaction to a story. That’s the limitation of memoirs and auto-bio comics, and what makes me nervous about them. It can very quickly become a situation where you are being judged, and whatever idea you had is overshadowed by empathy or pity or disgust. So if it’s true that she’s actively distancing herself from the reality of her comics, I can understand that. I try to keep it a little unclear in my comics too.
Exquisite Things: ‘Up Up Down Down’ in Eschew #2 was probably the highlight of the book for me. It’s what made me sit up and really take notice of your comics. There’s some wonderful visual interplay and use of foreshadowing, not to mention the plaintively somber atmosphere that permeates the whole thing. I came away deeply impressed by your use of pacing and timing… it’s just really mature work, and as a closing piece, it’s quite the emotional sledgehammer. ‘Up Up Down Down’ comes across as a very personal account of a tragic event.
Did your approach to this strip differ at all compared to your past efforts?
Robert Sergel: Usually I will thumbnail a story in my notebook. It might change a little as I work on it, but the basic structure stays the same. I went into that story with a much more vague sense of what I wanted to do or how it would turn out. I think I had originally intended to only do the bit about trying to play a broken Nintendo. But as I worked on it, it started to feel like a pretty cheap, nostalgic sentiment.
So I started pulling in some other ideas and tried to construct the narrative in such a way that the Nintendo functions less like a sentimental manifestation of lost time, and more like the ghost of Christmas past or something like that. So I had printouts of the pages taped to my wall for months and months, and I would look at it every day and move things around and add things and throw away other things and it kept expanding and expanding. It went through a lot of different permutations before I thought it made any sense.
Exquisite Things: It would be great to see you expand on the kind of extended, more drawn out storytelling found in ‘Up Up Down Down’. Do you have any plans to try your hand at longer self contained stories?
Robert Sergel: I definitely plan to do that. When I first started making comics, I just sort of jumped into the fray immediately working on something very long without really having any idea what I was doing. That failed pretty spectacularly, so I started the website as a place where I could experiment and try different things and hopefully get better.
I drew a lot of gag strips and stuff like that. Then I did a few one page stories that turned out okay, so I did a series of related one-page stories called “13 Bad Experiences Involving Water.” From there it’s been a very gradual progression into longer stories. But my plan has always been to eventually arrive at a point where I can do something that’s book length. It just takes a huge amount of time and discipline and I want to make sure I know what I’m doing.
Exquisite Things: ‘Eschew’ is your first official foray into printed comics. Personally, I’m a big supporter of pamphlet format comics, but at a time when many creators are headed in the opposite direction, what motivated you to make the jump from the web to print?
Robert Sergel: I never really considered myself a web cartoonist. I always looked at it more like a way to get my stuff out there and receive some feedback and hopefully get better that way. I was part of a web-comic collective for a while, and there were some awesome people there who really inspired me to work harder. Plus, it forced me to generate content every week, which really helped me get better faster than I would’ve otherwise.
My primary goal was always to do longer stories and to eventually have something printed. I prefer printed stuff too, and I don’t think it’s going anywhere. That being said, it’s really too bad there’s such a comic-sans, MS paint stigma attached to web-comics, because a lot of them are just really good comics. Most of them are available in book form anyway, so I don’t really see the harm.
Exquisite Things: What first got you into comics? What was it about comics in particular that inspired you to start making your own?
Robert Sergel: I wanted to be a cartoonist when I was little. I loved Calvin and Hobbes and Spiderman and drew my own little strips and books and stuff, but eventually I sort of quit because I didn’t think I could draw well enough. So I stopped drawing comics and got into photography and did that all through high school. It was mostly just an excuse to hide out in the darkroom at school and be antisocial, but I was good enough at it where it made some sense to pursue a degree in it.
So I did that, but then everything I liked about it evaporated pretty quickly once I got there. Around that time I started reading a lot of comics again, and eventually it just sort of clicked that I was better equipped to be a cartoonist. I spent the rest of my time at school learning how to use various design programs. I took a lot of cinema studies courses too, which maybe had an effect on me as well.
But in response to your question about what particularly inspired me... pretty much everything about drawing comics appeals to me. I really hate it when cartoonists complain about it. It takes such a diverse set of skills that you’re never really at a loss for something interesting to work on. There’s so much you get to do. You get to write and draw and paint and silkscreen and use computers and do layouts and book design and web design and typography. It’s like a dozen art forms rolled into one. That can maybe seem like a burden sometimes, but really it’s why I love comics.
I even like the “bad” stuff. It’s unprofitable and takes forever to do and isn’t really taken as seriously as other art forms, but those hurdles ensure that the people doing it are genuine and passionate and involved for the right reasons.
Exquisite Things: What’s the best thing you’ve read in terms of comics over the last 5 years? Are there any creators you’re particularly partial to?
Robert Sergel: It might be 'The End #1' by Anders Nilsen. Everything he does is brilliant. 'Acme Novelty 19' was awesome. I recently read a book called 'Driven By Lemons' by Josh Cotter that was great. Or maybe The Blot by Tom Neely. One of those, I guess. My comics are packed away at the moment, so I might be forgetting something.
I’m partial to a lot of creators. Obviously I love the Sparkplug people like Austin English, Hellen Jo, Aron Nels Steinke, John Hankiewicz and Chris Wright. There’s a smallish publisher out of New York called Secret Acres who are cranking out some unbelievably rad books by Eamon Espey, Sam Gaskin, Ken Dahl, Minty Lewis and Theo Ellsworth. I’ll buy anything John Porcellino or Renee French put out. There’s a Scottish guy named Malcy Duff who is doing some really interesting stuff, and a London-based artist named Mr Clement who is actually a lady and mostly draws rabbits. And I love a webcomic called 'Perfect Stars' by Jordan Piantedosi.
Exquisite Things: I noticed that you play in a local band called The Channels. I’m guessing music is a big part of your life. Does your work as an artist cross over into your music, or vice-versa?
Robert Sergel: I try to keep them pretty separate from one another, and I don’t generally work on them at the same time. I tend to shift focus every few months or so. At the moment I’m drawing a lot of comics, but over the spring I was recording every day and hardly drew anything. I just find the finished product is better if I completely immerse myself in it.
Exquisite Things: If Eschew had a soundtrack, what bands would appear on it?
Robert Sergel: You mean something to listen to while reading it?
Exquisite Things: Yeah.
Robert Sergel: That’s hard to answer, because I bought a mini one time that came with a CD of “mood music” you were supposed to listen to while reading, and it really only made the experience less enjoyable. Comics are about fragmenting time, so to introduce something fluid like music is only going to make that harder to do. But if someone were to turn one of my comics into an animated short or something, I’d like to re-animate Bernard Herrmann and have him score it.
Exquisite Things: Are there any future projects or aspirations you’d like to tell us about?
Robert Sergel: I’m working on stories for Eschew #3 at the moment. I’m hoping it’ll be done by winter.
Interview by Matthew Dick, August 2010.
Sparkplug Comics (Buy Eschew and more great comics here)
Idiot Comics (Robert Sergel's webcomics presence)