St. Louis-based cartoonist and illustrator Dan Zettwoch has been creating comics and mini-comics for years, gaining a reputation as a great craftsman. His work has appeared in “The Best American Comics,” in addition to anthologies like “Kramers Ergot,” “Drawn and Quarterly Showcase” and magazines including “Arthur” and “Vice.” Earlier this year, Drawn and Quarterly released Zettwoch’s first full-length graphic novel, “Birdseye Bristoe.”
The book is a gorgeous oversized hardcover that tells the story of two kids who spend a summer with their uncle who’s leased his land to a company building the world’s tallest cell phone tower. It’s about invention and creativity, and it’s also a lot of fun. CBR News spoke with Zettwoch about the book, his work process, and his love of info graphics and diagrams.
CBR News: Where did “Birdeye Bristoe” start for you?
Dan Zettwoch: It’s one of the stories that’s been rattling around in my mind for a while. Once I sat down to draw it I made the book in less than a year. The genesis of the book was lots of driving back and forth between my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky and where I live in St. Louis. I make this drive dozens of times a year and this story incubated for a few years whenever I would make that drive.
Was the landscape key to the story for you?
Yeah, there’s actually not a lot there but every time I would drive it, there would be a new cellphone tower being built on this particular stretch — to the point now where it seems like there’s one every hundred yards or so. Just imagining what that process is like or the process of being a person who owns a farm or a gas station along the highway that leases their land for that to happen to it.
This is your first graphic novel, though you’ve made numerous comics and mini-comics. Did you know this was going to be “graphic novel” as opposed to a “comic.”
[Laughs] Yeah, I think so. There was a point where I was going to do a mini-comic series of this story. The thing with Drawn and Quarterly came about and they’ve been bugging me for a while for something that would work as a book and this seemed like a good time to do something a bit more sustained. I didn’t think they would ever go for it because I wanted to do this fold out which is something I do in my mini-comics a lot. I thought, there’s no way a publisher will ever go for a fold-out. They called my bluff because they went for it and it sealed the deal.
If any publisher would say yes, it would be Drawn and Quarterly. Didn’t Kevin Huizenga’s “Gloriana” also have a fold out?
Yeah, they both came out about the same time and Kevin and I, because we both live in St. Louis and are friends, we did some signings and things together.
I’m curious about the structure of the book. Not to give anything away but you open with the ending and then the last page of the book takes place right before the first.
This is sort of an idea I didn’t really carry through, but I had the idea that the story would be sort of a “whodunnit” where there’s a crime revealed at the beginning, the collapse of the tower. The rest of the book would be selections of moments and short pieces that precede that and hint at some of the things that were going on that would eventually cause it to collapse. I just didn’t want [the collapse] to be the climax because I really didn’t feel like the story is about the tower collapsing. I guess I wanted to put that part at the beginning just to get it out of the way basically and maybe also hint that there was some sort of inevitability that that’s what would happen.
It’s easy to describe the book as about these two kids who spend the summer with their uncle, but that doesn’t explain what the book is about.
When I try to explain it to my family or at Thanksgiving I say it’s about a period of time when there’s a big boom in cell phone tower construction. There’s a transitional phase where everyone’s getting cell phones and parts of this rural area that’s being built up more. It’s about transitions between city to country and transitional points geographically. That’s actually more than I would say at Thanksgiving. I would say it’s about the construction of the world’s largest cell phone tower. [Laughs]
Was the design of the book part of your plan from the beginning?
Part of it had to do with this conversation I had with Tom Devlin at Drawn and Quarterly. At one point we were talking about doing a collection of all my short stories and anthology pieces and he suggested something that would a “Popular Mechanics”-style digest and I got it in my head that I would like the book to have the feel and size of a “Popular Mechanics” or “Mechanics Illustrated,” these old pulpy magazines that have a mix of diagrams and weird stories and stuff like that. The ads and the cover are directly pulled from or inspired by stuff you would see in the original DIY magazines.
The heart of the book is about how things work and a lot of your comics are about that. On some level a diagram or series of instructions doesn’t seem to be comics but you combine the two quite well and in interesting ways.
There are some things that diagrams and infographics are good for and other things that they’re not. They’re probably not the best to tell real straightforward emotional character situations or stories, but I think I try to use them in a way that resonates with emotion based on who’s telling them or who’s reading them. Mostly I like them because they’re fun to draw and they’re the kinds of things I like to look at and the kinds of things I’ve liked to look at since I was a kid. I have this deep seeded thing about wanting to know how things work. Being a visual person, the way that I learn how things work are usually from looking at schematics and flow charts and maps and graphs and that kind of thing. I really embraced that as my thing and the devices I’m going to use to tell those stories.
You said this may not best way to tell emotional character-based stories, but the structure of the book, opening with the tower collapse and then going back to tell the stories going on around it, lends itself to a story examining how things work.
It’s forensic, in a way, to lay all this stuff out. That’s what a comic is; it lays a bunch of different kinds of information out in front of you — information about characters and information about spaces and information about time-and creates clues and maps so hopefully if you read all this stuff and study all this stuff, it makes a picture of a world and a time and place. It’s also just visually important for me to make a thing that’s fun on a basic kid-like level.
Is that how you think about comics? That narrative isn’t your primary concern, but that there are other things you’re primarily interested in?
I think that’s fair. I am interested in the characters and the story, but from a much more oblique angle, I guess. One of my favorite comics of all time is this comic by the legendary underground [cartoonist] Justin Green. He did “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary” and he made this book called “The Sign Game.” He was a commercial sign painter and he had a comic strip that ran every week in the sign painting trade journal and he did it for fifteen or twenty years, I think. When you read the collection of all these strips it’s all this real technical information about how to actually paint signs and paint letter forms and mix your enamel paints and what to do to make it weather proof, but somehow over the course of those years he worked on that strip, there’s such a strong narrative hidden about him personally and the changing world of how sign painting technology changes to people not even painting signs anymore they’re all computer vinyl printouts. There’s this really touching and amazing narrative that’s hidden in all this technical stuff. I think that’s the kind of thing I’m trying to capture in a shorter time span. I hadn’t really made that connection until you just asked that, but I like that idea of burying the narrative underneath a bunch of stuff.
Or, if not burying it, then the narrative is not the primary focus.
I think that’s fair to say.
Is “Birdseye Bristoe” composed primarily of things you like to draw?
Essentially. I knew that I would never be able to maintain the momentum or interest in drawing an entire book unless it was full of stuff that I was excited to draw. The construction stuff with the tower, local folklore and little pieces of semi-rural mythology, tackle shops. It really is a story that’s built around a lot of stuff that I’m interested in visually or tonally. I really tried to engineer the story around that stuff. Which again probably reveals a certain weakness on my part as a writer but it’s really the only way I know how to do it.
“Birdseye Bristoe” was all done by hand. You didn’t use a computer for the art or color?
No, that was my major breakthrough. I came upon this working methodology where I was drawing right on typing paper with ballpoint pens and colored pencils and white out. Just scanning the pages and doing minimal digital touchup. Looking at the book, it’s almost like you’re looking at a stack of the originals which is something that was important to me from kind of a philosophical standpoint but also just that’s kind of what I had to do to know that I’d be able to draw sixty-four pages in this amount of time and get it finished.
The idea of scanning in inked pages and playing with color in Photoshop didn’t appeal to you?
No. That’s traditionally how I’d done all my comics and I even started this book that way. I did the first section of the book, or maybe just the first twelve pages where I was penciling and inking then scanning and sitting in front of the computer in photoshop and I sit in front of the computer so much for my day job as an illustrator that just the idea of spending all my free time in front of the computer coloring this comic was just so exhausting for me to think about, so it was nice to get away from that a bit.
That ties into the book’s theme about the value of creating something handmade.
Yeah, It’s about the difference between handmade production and a more corporate — not that cartoonists who use computers are corporate — but I did want to draw a distinction between modes of production in the book. The difference between making a bird feeder out of three liter bottle and a giant corporate conglomerate building the world’s tallest cell phone tower. Definitely the modes of production were an important thing to try to get at with the actual art styles.
Is the book roughly the same size as the pages you drew?
I think I shrank them down a tiny bit just for margins, but they’re pretty much the same size — 8.5″ by 11″ sheets of typing paper with whiteout left on there.
I enjoyed the white out.
Yeah I thought I would go back through and take those out but actually there were fewer of them than I thought there would be and in some ways I like the weird thing that happens when you can see someone fixed their own mistake. That guy, he changed the word there and that’s interesting because then you can think, “Oh, the character changed a word in a word balloon.” It’s like he’s editing himself, so I decided to leave that kind of stuff.
You mentioned that you were talking with Drawn and Quarterly about a collection of your short comics.
That was originally what I was talking with those guys about and I was just feeling like I needed to make something new. I felt like I hadn’t made my thing that felt totally like my thing enough for there to warrant a collection of smaller stuff. I was definitely much more excited to make a new book.
Are you still planning to create a collection of your short comics?
Probably. I do have a ton of stuff that’s been published in small stuff or online that I could probably get a book together of all that stuff. I’d be excited to spend a little time working on that for somebody. We’ll see. In some ways I made a pretty big shift in my drawing style and working method with this book, which I ended up liking a lot, but to go back to some of that older stuff I might have to come to terms with how that stuff looked.
Have you started working on or thinking about the next project?
I just made a new mini-comic that I had at SPX. It was fun to just draw something in a few weeks and xerox it and staple it myself. I’m working on a new comic for Oily Comics, Chuck Forsman and his outfit of mini-comics. I’m working on one of those, but after that I don’t know. Nothing too grand yet, I guess, in the works.