Talking Comics with Tim: Jeet Heer, Part I

Jeet Heer is a critic and scholar who makes me realize I'm incredibly ignorant of the comics medium on so many levels. Therefore when I had the opportunity to interview him recently, to say I was intimidated (even though it was via the comfort of email) is an understatement. We covered a great deal of ground in our email exchange, but it is so diverse while at the same time succinct, I have opted to split the interview into two parts. The second part (found here) focuses on Heer's collaboration with Kent Worcester. My thanks to Heer for his time and thoughts.

Tim O'Shea: What is the labor breakdown between you, Chris Ware and Chris Oliveros in terms of editing the collections of Frank King's Gasoline Alley? Who handles what on the projects?

Jeet Heer: I see the Walt and Skeezix books as truly collaborative efforts. With each volume, Chris Ware and I make a trip out to see Frank King’s family, collect material and decide what the theme is going to be. I try to shape my writing around the visual material: thus in volume 3, we had a lot of photos of Gasoline Alley toys and merchandizing, thanks in large part to Chris’s efforts as a collector. See those photos inspired me to write about King’s ability to spin off merchandizing based on is characters. Chris Oliveros, of course, handles the production end of things, which is a big part of the book’s appeal (and a big reason why Drawn and Quarterly books are so treasured). I’m less involved in the production decision, but I often eavesdrop as an interested observer and it’s fascinating to listen to the two Chrises talk about paper stock, the size of books, the color scheme of the covers and other details. For both Ware and Oliveros, book making is truly an art. This is important to bear in mind because until recently, book production wasn’t a big part of comics: most comic strip collection and comic books were shoddily put together. To be sure, there were exceptions like the Barnaby books of the 1940s, or Walt Kelly’s warm and inviting Pogo paperbacks of the 1950s. But the real revolution in comics came in the 1980s and 1990s thanks to four people: Francoise Mouly, Chip Kidd, Chris Ware, and Chris Oliveros. The four really taught us that to do justice to comics as a visual form, the book design had to be specifically tailored to show the art in the best light.

O'Shea: How much research did you have to collect in order to write the supporting material (an afterword) for Oh Skin-nay! The Days of Real Sport?

Heer: The Oh Skin-nay book shows you what miracles you can perform with modern technology. There were a few short articles about Briggs in some standard books like The World Encyclopedia of Comics, but no real in depth study. Yet thanks to the internet, I was able to hook up to ProQuest, a service that let me quickly find thousands of Briggs comics from the early 20th century along with many articles about Briggs. Also, belong to list serves allowed me to hear from many scholars and collectors who had various Briggs tidbits, including a contract he signed in the 1920s and much original art. I also managed to track down one of Briggs’s grand-daughters, who filled me in on family lore (some of this arrived too late to be used in the book). All these sources made it possible for me to piece together Briggs life in way that would have been very difficult, if not impossible as recently as the 1980s. The whole research took about a month but I felt at the end that I had a much better sense of Briggs life than anyone has achieved before. I don’t think people realize how much technology has changed research and scholarship. It’s much easier to find things about the past than ever before. The trick is to navigate your way around the web.

O'Shea: As a Canadian scholar, what would you say is a major difference (if there is a clear difference) between Canada's critical view of comics versus the typical U.S. critical perspective on comics?

Heer: In the United States, you have two large companies that dominate the comics industry: DC and Marvel. In Canada, the largest and most prominent publisher of comics is Drawn and Quarterly. Of course D&Q isn’t a big company but in Canada it has a real profile. When D&Q has a new book out, it gets reviewed in the major newspapers. Moreover, alternative cartoonists like Seth and Chester Brown enjoy a real presence in the public sphere: they regularly have museum shows on their work and get interviewed on radio. Of course that’s true of Chris Ware and Dan Clowes but with one major difference: Seth and Chester are considered a part of the Canadian identity while Ware and Clowes are considered in America as interesting artists but not necessarily an big part of the cultural fabric of the nation. What this means is that it is much easier to write about comics in Canada, than the United States. I’ve never had trouble convincing editors in Canada to do stories on comics, especially alternative comics, but I suspect in America it would be a harder slog. It’s interesting that the major Canadian writers on comics (Bart Beaty, Bryan Munn, Brad Mackay) all focus on alternative or classic comics, something that isn’t true of the major American writers on comics.

O'Shea: You strike me as a writer who has a clear view and opinion on comics and politics, together and independently. Is it feasible when you participate in gatherings like the recent MIT event, where as you describe it "Ho Che Anderson, Diana Tamblyn and I talked about the relationship between politics and comics" your view can be influenced to change?

Heer: Well, I do have strong views on both politics and comics but I like to think that I’m not dogmatic and open to change. To give a specific example from the talk with Ho and Diana, Ho praised the work of Howard Chaykin, a cartoonist whose work I haven’t really enjoyed since the very early issues of American Flagg. But because of Ho’s praise, I’m taking another look at Chaykin: not convinced of Chaykin’s virtues yet, but I’m willing to give him some more time than I would have if I hadn’t talked to Ho. Diana also convinced me to take a look at the series Criminal by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Political and aesthetic views don’t, for me at least, exist in isolation; they always grow out of dialogue. Another example: I have little use for Steve Ditko’s politics and also feel that his cartooning went into decline after he started doing his more polemical works (The Mr. A series and subsequent work). But talking to a number of passionate Ditko fans has convinced me that I’ve glided over that work too quickly, so I’m taking a closer look at it.

O'Shea: For you, what is the general relationship between politics and comics?

Heer: Certain art forms lend themselves to politics, others less so. Ideological driven novels tend not to be so good, whereas there have been a large number of politically-motivated comics that are also first rate works. I’m thinking here not just of the rich tradition of political cartooning (everyone from Thomas Nast to Herblock) but also comic strips like Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie and Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, the woodcut novels of Frans Masereel, the stark poster wordless novels of Eric Drooker (much influenced by the woodcut tradition). I should note here that what I’m making here is a aesthetic rather than a political judgement: Gray and Gould were right-wingers whereas others on the list were leftists. Still, all found comics a powerful tool for political commentary. Why doe comics lend themselves to politics? I think there is a deep affinity between political thinking and cartooning. To simplify a little: political thinking involves stripping the world down into a sharp narrative of a few conflicting forces (liberals versus conservatives, left versus right), a narrative which is usually given a partisan slant (say wishy-washy, unkempt liberal hippies versus hardworking conservatives or caring, concerned leftists versus selfish, mean-spirited right wingers). What this means is that when we’re thinking politically, we’re already cartooning in our own minds, we’re seeing the world as a cartoonist sees it with sharply defined characters. Hence cartoonists find it easy to adapt their art for political commentary.

O'Shea: How did you end up in a group blog (Sans Everything) with three Canadian writers like John Haffner, A. M. Lamey, and Ian Garrick Mason?

Heer: Haffner, Lamey and Mason are old friends, and are all writers and editors that I’ve worked with on a number of other publications (Ian edited a magazine called Gravitas that Lamey and I wrote for). Since we now live in different cities we would often email each other thoughts on current events and our various writing projects. After a while, we decided our email conversations seemed interesting enough that it might be worth having a blog where we could continue the conversation in a more public venue. So Sans Everything is basically a private correspondence made public; I think of lot of interesting blogging has this quality of being public and private at the same time.

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