Nick Bertozzi Talks "Stuffed!"

Nick Bertozzi is an acclaimed cartoonist who has published many short stories, webcomics and graphic novels and has won a Harvey Award, an Ignatz Award, and a Xeric grant for his series "Rubber Necker." Bertozzi is a member of the ACT-I-VATE collective where he crafts several comics, including the ongoing "Persimmon Cup." His book, "The Salon," is a fictional mystery that examines the development of cubism and life among Americans in Paris at the beginning of the Twentieth century. "Houdini: The Handcuff King" is a fictional biography of the legendary figure that Bertozzi collaborated on with another acclaimed writer/artist, Jason Lutes. Bertozzi currently teaches at New York's School of Visual Arts.

This fall is a busy time for Bertozzi. His newest graphic novel, "Stuffed!," written by Glenn Eichler, has just been released from First Second books. Bertozzi also contributed a M.O.D.O.K. short story to Marvel's "Strange Tales" anthology and he has a story in the upcoming "ACT-I-VATE Primer" being released by IDW in October.

You're a well known writer and artist with a great track record of creating your own stories. What was it about "Stuffed!" made you sign on as the artist? 

I've been told more than once, by friends, editors, and agents, that my stories are too complicated. I was offered "Stuffed!," and since it's plot is very straightforward and the scene-writing is very precise, I thought I might learn how to hone my own stories.

Speaking on behalf of those who enjoy your work, it is very complicated, but I've always liked that.

I think I ask readers to infer a large degree of subtextual information, and that disengages a lot of folks from a smooth reading experience that would act as the candy-coating for the complex chocolate goodness within. Please pardon the bad metaphor.

You mentioned that the scene-writing in "Stuffed!" was very precise, and I was wondering if you could give an example what you meant by that.

Characters in "Stuffed!" often tell each other how they feel, whereas in my own scripts, I rely on exchanges of looks between characters, characters looking at objects, the manner in which characters interact with objects or settings to give the reader the emotional state of the character.

What's the appeal for you working as just the artist on a project like "Stuffed!" or the book you worked on with Jason Lutes, "Houdini?"

I enjoy the physicality of drawing. It's meditative, it's calming, it's fun. Writing is satisfying too, but far more mentally challenging for someone like me. 

"Stuffed!" is a very dialogue heavy book. How did that affect the way you laid out the pages? Since there was a lot of dialogue, I wanted to hand-letter the book so that the reader would hopefully find the text more lively than computer-lettering. Because of this, the layouts were more challenging than they might have been, but I think there's a solid balance.

Besides hand-lettering the book, you also laid out the color palate and helped design the book. Was it understood when you took the job that you would be doing all this?

I'd already done many long comics when they asked me to work on "Stuffed!," so perhaps there was an understanding that I could be left to my own devices and turn in a solid piece of work on time.

How much research do you do for a project like this compared to your more historical-themed work?

I was surprised at how much I had to research considering I could just look out of my window for reference. I had to get the cars right, street-lamps, the Museum, Washington Square Park, a parking garage, things that'd be easier to fudge if set in the olden days, since no one living knows for sure what a historical figure like Meriwether Lewis wore on the 16th of September in 1804.

I remember when "Houdini" came out, you mentioned that one of the things that interested you about the project was getting to work with Jason Lutes, who wrote and did the layouts for the book. In what way do you think what you learned from Lutes about layout and design affected how you worked on "Stuffed!"?

I learned from Jason that it's important in the layout stage to consider the way in which the verso and recto pages of a two-page spread compliment one another, since they'll be scanned in tandem by the reader.

Did working in full color change the way you worked? Did you try to use color to set the scene and mood? 

I tried to restrain myself with the coloring, so there are only a few panels and scenes in which the coloring strays from the non-representational palette that was set up for the bulk of the book. When it does stray, it's for a reason. There are dream-scenes and flashbacks that are colored in a more abstract fashion so that does away with the need for awkward "Later..." narrative balloons.

Shifting gears, I was wondering, how did you become involved with the Marvel's "Strange Tales" anthology, and how much free reign did you have as far as choosing a project and how to handle it? Aubrey Sitterson, the original Assistant Editor of the anthology, told me that his girlfriend had been reading "The Salon" and laughing while doing so, which he took to be a good sign. When he called and asked me to contribute, I felt compelled to draw an odd-looking Kirby character. My only edits were "No swearing and no sex."

For people who might not know, earlier this month you posted a number of pages of an adaptation of Kate Chopin's novel "The Awakening." You wrote that you abandoned it, but it's far too gorgeous to just leave abandoned. Do you have any plans to finish it? Maybe one day! I'm glad you'd like to see more of it. One great commenter informed that he or she had put the original novel on hold at their library, so my work may already be done!

"The Awakening" is a pretty famous book. What was it about that made you interested in adapting it?

Something about Chopin's writing conjured up very distinct images in my head. She uses simple, direct language in describing her settings, so maybe it's what goes un-stated that allows the reader to fill in her written-world so deeply.

Also, I'm very attracted to the notion of late-bloomers, people who make drastic changes in their lives much later than others. This was the case for me, I didn't finally decide that I would give in to cartooning until I was twenty-seven. Edna's story is like that, she has a very involving life, and gradually realizes that it's not the right one.

I know you're working on another book for First Second. What can you say about it at this stage?

I'm writing and drawing a Lewis & Clark graphic novel for First Second that'll hopefully be published in early 2011. I don't want to overstate it, but I think it's going to be a very good read.

"The Salon" and "Houdini" weren't so much strict historical and biographical pieces as they were finding a way to depict the people and their ideas first and foremost. The plot at the heart of "The Salon" may have been fictional, but the characters were true, and the ideas behind cubism were very accurate. I'm not sure how much you want to say about your Lewis and Clark book, but how would you compare its approach to history to those two previous books, or your short comic on Ernest Shackleton?

Lewis and Clark will fit right in with the treatment of history that was used in "The Salon" and "Houdini." Dates will be shuffled and events compressed or moved around in the timeline, two, or even several, characters will be compressed into one to allow for smoother dramatization, but I believe the ideas are true. And I'm very glad to hear that you think that, especially of "The Salon." I worked hard to keep the characters actions concordant with their real personalities, even in the most fantastical situations.

I'm inking Lewis and Clark now, and I believe that I've found a very unique way to tell the story that gives the adventure more of a personal emotional impact on the reader, rather than some of the more chest-thumping versions out there. In reality, the journey of Lewis and Clark is a bittersweet story, and I wanted to reflect that complication.

Comics are by their nature an associative medium, and because of the way that they are created, that method of telling a story, in little packets of information placed just-so next to another packet of information, carries over from the form and into the content.

It was announced a while back that were drawing a biography of Lenny Bruce that Harvey Pekar was writing. Is that project still on?

We're still waiting for the editor to finish editing the script. I'm very excited about some of my layout solutions and would love to finish the book! Hello, editor??

Finally, this fall you have a story in "The ACT-I-VATE Primer" that's being released by IDW. I was wondering if you just wanted to say a few words for those who may not know ACT-I-VATE, what the anthology is and what your story will be?

ACT-I-VATE.COM is a web-comics anthology founded by and for cartoonists to publish their own comics, unfettered by editorial constraint. This allows for some really great comics, and others that can be hard to follow (I'm talking about myself here). But they are always a direct conduit to the artist's thoughts. The community format has really helped spur me on, to get me to make better cartoons, like "Persimmon Cup." In October, we'll be publishing 16 stories that you CAN'T find on the web, that feature characters from ongoing webcomics. We do it all!

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