Jon Lewis Returns to the "True Swamp"

Jon Lewis was a part of the Seattle comics scene in the early 1990s and his comic "True Swamp," which received a Xeric grant, established him as a major indie comics figure. Lewis has created other comics including "Ghost Ship" and "Spectacles," as well as contributing to "Dark Horse Presents" and "Oni Double Feature." He also wrote a number of stories for DC Comics, including a 20-issue run on "Robin."

Two years ago Lewis began posting new "True Swamp" stories online. Those were printed by Uncivilized Books as minicomics and now the publisher is releasing "True Swamp: Choose Your Poison," a deluxe hardcover collection of Lewis' early work on the series from the '90s. Lewis spoke with CBR News about his projects both past and present, as well as why he decided to return to "True Swamp."

CBR News: For our readers that don't know, what is "True Swamp?"

Jon Lewis: It's funny that I still struggle when I'm asked that question. It's so many things to me! But if I take a dozen steps back I can say something like: "True Swamp" is a comic about animals in the wild experiencing psychological problems, strange adventures, and, I guess, strange psychological adventures too. It started out focused squarely on Lenny the Frog -- the material collected in the new hardcover is all Lenny-centric -- and eventually expanded out to cover a wider cast of creatures even though Lenny is still at the center in the material I'm doing today. "True Swamp" started out as an escape hatch for a freaked-out 21 year-old me, but evolved into a kind of lab where I can experiment with different ways that people feel and interact and make rules for each other.

Does it feel like it's been twenty years since you first starting tell the story of Lenny the Frog and his neighbors?

No. I think I have some kind of problem with my sense of time. Sometimes the paradox of how immediate that time and place feels, and how distant it actually is, makes me kind of dizzy. I don't feel 42. Mentally, that is. My body feels at least 62, but then that's a part of why I started the comic in the first place.

But then as soon as I say that, it does seem like a long time. The way I think about things and the way I navigate my days is so different now from what it was when I started "True Swamp." I don't know what time is, and I don't think anyone else can prove they know what it is, either.

Reading Ed Brubaker's introduction to the book and your afterword, it sounds as if the '90s comics scene in Seattle was a really exciting time for people who were interested in the medium. I don't want to make you repeat anything you already wrote about, but what was it that you found so inspiring as a young cartoonist?

When I got there in 1990 I was an egg that thought it was already a moth. I wasn't even a larva yet. The bunch of minicomics I had done were "interesting" at best, but often just indigestible. I got there and met heroes of mine like Jim Woodring and Pete Bagge who were very nice to me, very avuncular, for which I'm forever grateful. But it wasn't until Tom Hart moved there too, and then Ed Brubaker pretty soon after that, that I got some of the harsher perspective I needed. Because we were more like peers, and they wanted to reach higher in what they were doing, and I had been too easy on myself with my dada little scribbly things and needed to be infected by that kind of ambition. And before that, it also never occurred to me that if I pushed myself towards something more coherent, more than a dozen people might care about the work. In other words, the water I was in and the water Jim Woodring and Pete Bagge and Chester Brown were in weren't divided like a little pond and a great ocean with no connection between; there was a stream linking it all up and you could get down that stream by work. That was a mind-exploding notion.

It helped us, too, to have the older group of artists and Fantagraphics folks right there to sort of push ourselves against, you know. We wanted to show we had something to bring to the table and there's always that spirit of revolt when you're in your early 20s and the ethos that developed in our little clique was storytelling, storytelling, storytelling. Everything in service of the story. We were really zealots about that. By then it was me, Tom, Ed, Megan Kelso, David Lasky, Jason Lutes and James Sturm. We would get together at one of our houses every week and critique the shit out of each other's work in progress. A couple of times some other cartoonist our age would come to those meetings, and afterward they'd be like, "This is not fun," and never come again. But it was fun! It was harsh but it was fun.

Also, it was really cheap then -- when me, Tom and Ed first started running around together I was literally living on a strict budget of 3 dollars a day (after rent). It was a cheap town then and that was doubled by the fact that we were all at the age where you somehow don't need anything. It was fine to live in a minuscule room in a boarding house full of psychos and never see the doctor and subsist on canned soup and ramen and convenience store heat-lamp burritos. Tom and Megan were the most upright citizens of us; he had a job at the comics store and she worked at the airport.

Seattle is so incredibly green, too. For someone with my bent for details of nature it was constantly stimulating to be having this city life but with all these crazy little plants and mosses everywhere you cared to look.

I haven't been back since 1997 but I hear it's changed a ton. Not in the vegetable aspect obviously, but in every human way.

It's just so lucky how things coalesced there; maybe everyone experiences a convergence like that at some point in their life but I feel really fortunate to have been with that group of friends in that time and place. And like I said it feels so immediate, sometimes it's really jarring when I realize that we're scattered to the corners of the country with me in New York, Tom in Florida, Jason and James up in Vermont, Ed in Los Angeles, Megan and Dave in Seattle, and we see each other once every two years or whatever. Yet in my head I'm with those guys every day, you know? It's like having been in a band or something.

How much of you is Lenny?

A lot, obviously, but more so in that first story arc which comprises the stuff in the hardcover. The connection between me and that character was blazingly intense then. But what's interesting to me is that I didn't use him to fulfill any wishes or fantasies, instead I tended to capture things in Lenny that I didn't like about myself and sort of punish him for those things almost. Not on purpose, even. I liked the character. But personal things were working themselves out on the page, let's say.

Starting with the second "True Swamp" series, in 2000, Lenny became a more of a character whom I could see as distinct from myself. And began to gain his own motivations for things which I as the storyteller had to follow along with.

How did you connect with Tom Kaczynski and end up publishing "True Swamp" through Uncivilized Books?

I moved to Brooklyn in 2003 and got married to Karen Sneider -- New Yorker cartoonist and creator of the beloved minicomic "The Many Strange Desires Of Mreh" -- in 2004. Karen had already been holding weekly meet-ups of New York City cartoonists for awhile when I came to town. The first one I went to was Karen, Vanessa Davis, Robyn Chapman, Gabrielle Bell and Tom Hart. It was amazing to just fall into a new cartooning family that was already in place. Pretty soon after that Jonathan Bennett started coming, and in a little while Jonathan introduced us to Tom K, who I thought was an electronic musician at first -- that was all Tom and I talked about at the first meeting he came to. But then it emerged he was a really good cartoonist with a voice that hasn't really been done in comics before, and he grew up in my hometown of St. Paul-Minneapolis, and we like a lot of the same movies. And he was a "True Swamp" fan from its original run. He even had the "True Swamp" T-shirt, of which I'd only sold like twenty at [Comic-Con International in] San Diego in 1995. So we became pals and he was kind of busting out as a cartoonist at the same time as being a Flash designer for this big ad agency. And somehow he finagled it so that he could move back to Minneapolis while at the same time continuing his advertising job at the same New York rate of pay.

After a couple of years of that he had built up the resources to try a publishing venture, which kicked off with a diary minicomic by Gabrielle Bell. Then he asked me to do booklets of the new "True Swamp" material I was putting online. His concept of doing basically a boutique minicomics imprint, with a lot of care put into the design of the booklets and quality of the production, was a great idea and he was really smart about how he put it out there. Pretty soon he told me the top-secret news that Gabrielle's next book was gonna be put out by him as a hardcover, and he had secured a major distributor to represent him to the book trade. So we agreed right then to do the "Classic True Swamp" edition as the next one after Gabrielle's, which was a project I had literally been putting off for half a decade because of all the scanning, digital restoration and de-muddying, and art locating it would entail. But now that I saw that hardcover edition in my head I was like, "Screw it, the next year of my life is getting this book ready and that's the right thing to do." And I hung up the phone and called Gabrielle and was like, "Holy shit, I know your secret and now I'm in it too, THIS IS AMAZING." And actually Gabrielle and I still have this little conversation every time we see each other about how excited we are to be on the ground floor of the Uncivilized venture. Which is Gabrielle being modest because the strength of her book is the main engine making it possible!

In putting together the collection of "True Swamp: Choose Your Poison," did you learn anything about it going over the material in preparation for the volume?

It was a very intense experience, scrutinizing those pages line by line. I actually remembered making some of those brush strokes. It was a particularly vivid brand of that time displacement I was talking about before. And there are things I hate about that artwork at the same time as there's things that blow me away about that artwork that I wouldn't be able to pull off today. Some of the stuff with very fine brush strokes mixed up with stippling-inking is very physical and the arm and wrist I have now are different.

The lettering irritated me a lot. A lot of it was spaced too close together or too close to the panel border. I didn't understand then how the sight of the lettering is absolutely critical to a comic. The lettering is like the eye contact you're making with the reader. I didn't want to re-letter cause that would look too clashing style-wise, and I didn't want to make a font, so I spent months taking the lettering and digitally nudging words a millimeter or so further apart from one another for more instant readability.

We included the original minicomic version of issue #1 as an appendix in the hardcover. It's much rawer than what came out to the comics rack, much more aggressively chiaroscuro. I hadn't looked at it in over 15 years and I was surprised how much I didn't hate it. It's over the top and it interferes with the storytelling but it's kind of cool.

Spending most of 2011 immersed in the old pages was opportune, too, while I wasn't drawing new stuff, because it gave me ideas for the reintroduction of a couple of old characters who are just perfect for my story needs right now.

Why did you decide to return to "True Swamp" for a third time recently online and in the two comics collecting the stories which are available from Uncivilized?

I don't make that many rational decisions about where to go with comics. My gut drags me in a direction and eventually I have to go there and "True Swamp" is my home, psychically. Some people leave home and never come back except for holiday visits, some people come home and realize it's the place of inconceivable power for them. There are other things I have wanted to do, and other things which I need to go back to eventually and complete -- especially "Ghost Ship" and "Power of 6" -- but I have surrendered myself to "True Swamp," gladly. I think that I would have continued straight on from the 2000 revival if I hadn't gotten the opportunity to write scripts for a living for DC. That was a tantalizing thing and after it dried up in 2003 I kept chasing it with lots of pitches for several years more.

The most recent "True Swamp" stories read very different from your earlier stories. What were you trying to do and what was it about this revised approach that you found so compelling?

There were a few factors that pushed me to evolve in that direction. One, like a lot of artists and musicians as I've gotten older I've gotten to be more of a classicist: wanting to bring things across concisely, let fewer details signify more things, keep it short and sweet. So a sequence of concise single page scenes, each giving you a specific cookie of the story, was natural to me.

Second, as "True Swamp" became less of a roman a clef with Lenny as me, the Swamp itself became more of the driver for me, the constellation of different characters and groups and concerns and how they collide with each other and weave in and out. So the ability to jump around between elements due to this single-page cell structure would be great for that.

Third, right about when the mainstream comics scripting dried up for me in 2003, health problems started to be a serious thing again. I had been super sick from 1985 to 1991, then pretty exempt from that for about 10 years thanks to surgery, but then in my 30s the same illness started to reassert itself and it became obvious there was no way I could go without good medical coverage, which is either impossibly expensive if you're a freelancer or complimentary if you're an office dude. I was temping, and that led to a full-time job offer which I took and where I've remained for 8 years. I'm too old and sick not to work full-time, if that's not too paradoxical. Now, "True Swamp" is a big story with a lot of points to visit, and I didn't want to get to the next major plot event in 2016, so I needed a structure which could motor along within the confines of having a 45-hour-a-week job. Bite sized "scene-lets," which each say a lot, are a great fit for that.

I also love how with the current "True Swamp" structure, I can interject these little bits that have absolutely nothing to do with the ongoing threads, just these random swamp incidents, and some of them can remain non sequiturs while others can end up feeding into the story later on.

Of all your work, why do you think "True Swamp" continues to endure both for you and for fans?

Of all the things I've done, it's the one that took on its own life and became bigger than me. It's like the monster that became more human than its creator. It knows things I don't know, but hope to find out. When that happens with a piece of work, people feel it. I managed to lodge this thing in a few people's brains and they seem happy about that.

What comes next for you? Will we see a book collecting the second volume of "True Swamp" stories from 2000-2001? More new "True Swamp" stories? Reprints of some of your other work? New projects you have in mind?

Yes, the plan is to follow up with the approximately 130 pages of "True Swamp" that I put out in 2000-2001. There will be a lot less production work for me, because that art is in such good shape and was very crisp to begin with. Those two issues are still obtainable, since Wow Cool recently assumed all of Alternative Comics' old inventory, so we need to add enticements for a hardcover edition. I have an idea how to do that already.

Since the Volume 2 hardcover will not be so back-breakingly curatorial for me, I don't expect to have to take another long break from drawing new "True Swamp" stuff. I just finished writing a bunch of new pages and I'm getting into penciling them now.

Like I mentioned, I really want to have "Ghost Ship" back in print, but there's not enough material in those three SLG issues to make up a squarebound book. I figure it needs another story (not just format-wise but dramatically). There's a semi-related "weird sea story" which I fully penciled in the late '90s; it's not about the same characters but it fits the tone. That could go in a "Ghost Ship" book, maybe, if it got inked. I need to finish the concluding half of "Power of 6," too. It's 50% penciled. The reason I set that aside, besides really crappy sales on the first chapter, was that a summer blockbuster movie came out while I was drawing it that used the same historical hook as what I had in the second chapter. So I was like, "I'm gonna wait a few years and let people forget this probably shitty movie."

And then I'm really fond of the horror mini I did in 2010, "Klagen: A Horror," and I would really love to do one more in that vein. And I should tour outside the city for the "True Swamp" book. And I don't play enough guitar. It's the Friday of a three-day weekend right now and all these things seem possible! But let's be realistic: "True Swamp" in 2013, the end.

The "True Swamp: Choose Your Poison" HC is available now from Uncivilized Books.

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