Talking Comics with Tim: John Kerschbaum

This John Kerschbaum interview is long overdue. After I interviewed John Arcudi back in January 2009, he suggested I interview John Kerschbaum. In fact, he mentioned Kerschbaum in the course of our interview: "Petey and Pussy creator John Kerschbaum is the best cartoonist working in funnybooks right now. And he’s not working nearly enough." My apologies to Kerschbaum for the time it took to make this interview happen (he agreed to it back in late January, but I was unable to get questions to him until May), so I am really glad to run this finally. Kerschbaum, who was a 2008 Eisner nominee in the Best Humor Publication category for Petey and Pussy, was kind enough to discuss this most recent Fantagraphics book as well as the work he has self-published through his own Fontanelle Press. Enjoy.

Tim O'Shea: Looking at your work to date, is there any line of comedy that you are afraid to cross?

John Kerschbaum: I don't know if I'm motivated by fear, per se, but I tend to shy away from specifically offending people. That is, I avoid ethnic, political or religious humor, that type of stuff. I like to think I'm more of an equal-opportunity offender.

But that's not to say I think any of those topics are taboo. There are talented cartoonists, humorists and comedians that mine those territories for humor whose work I really enjoy. It's all about the context in which it's being done and the abilities of the cartoonist doing it. Just because something CAN be funny doesn't mean is always IS. There's a time and place for everything.

O'Shea: That being said, as an artist who has an ability to execute grotesque or disconcerting scenes that are at the same time funny, how do you strike that balance that allows it to remain funny?

Kerschbaum: Well, in the end it's just a comic. The violence is grotesque, but in a way over-the-top, cartoony way. I think what strikes the reader is the detail in which the result of the violence is drawn. It's what it would look like if Elmer Fudd REALLY blew Daffy's beak off. But I've always felt that humor and horror are very closely related. That they naturally play off of each other. The funny bits make the scary bits scarier and vice versa.

O'Shea: In terms of influences, which artists or storytellers have the ability to make you laugh and helped form your unique sense of humor.

Kerschbaum: My biggest, earliest comic/cartoon influence was MAD magazine, in particular Don Martin. Dr. Seuss, William Steig, B. Kliban and Edward Gorey were all favorites of mine early on. I had a subscription to National Lampoon in the early '80's -- and especially liked the work of Gahan Wilson, S. Gross, Rick Geary, Bobby London and Shary Flenniken. I used to get Heavy Metal as well and the New Yorker just for the cartoons. And I always read the newspaper comics -- Peanuts, Ziggy, and Herman were favorites. But humor-wise I've been greatly influenced by TV. I loved watching Looney Tunes, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Get Smart, Monty Python, Fernwood Tonight, David Letterman, Garry Shandling, Saturday Night Live -- which introduced me to the humor of Steve Martin, a huge comedic influence.

O'Shea: You appear to enjoy the art of self-publishing. Why I say this is the distinctive approach you take in compiling some of your works. For example, Junk Drawer sports a corrugated cardboard cover and sports periodic folded 8.5 x 11 layouts. How hard was that to bind and assemble?

Kerschbaum: Well, appearances can be deceiving! For the most part, I've self-published out of necessity. I find the "business" end of self-publishing soul-crushing. I often liken it to a middle-aged man's equivalent of running a lemonade stand except that lemonade is easier to make and has a higher profit margin. And while I do get some pleasure from designing and even constructing the mini-comics, I do not like single-handedly mass-producing them on the scale needed to sell them online and at conventions.

Junk Drawer is, by far, the most ambitious mini-comic I've made. I really wanted to get some work that I'd done for various anthologies as well as some older work that had never seen print or was out of print into the hands of readers. Technically, it was a very difficult undertaking. Each one has my blood, sweat and tears in it. Originally I was going to make 150 of them and each copy was going to have a small plastic bag taped to the inside back cover that had an actual piece of junk from my studio (a dirty pipe cleaner, paper clips, an old key, etc.) But I ran out of steam at 80 copies (but still managed to crank out 100) and decided to just keep my junk. But I'm proud of the way it came out and I've sold almost all of them. Still, I'll never do anything like it ever again!

O'Shea: In reading your late 1990s work on The Wiggly Reader, I really love your covers--in particular the multiple versions of Mary and Abe Lincoln at Ford Theater. It's been more than a decade, I realize, but how did you come up with a cover like that?

Kerschbaum: I'm delighted that that cover seems to really resonate with people. It is admittedly kinda nuts. All I can recall is describing the idea for the drawing to friends -- long before I ever decided to use it as the cover for a comic -- and getting a very positive response. But for the life of me I cannot remember its origins. The cover for the third issue by the way was inspired by a Robert Capa photograph.

O'Shea: While you have self-published a great deal, last year saw the release of Petey & Pussy published by Fantagraphics. Do you find the creative process any easier when you work with a publisher rather than being a publisher? What other advantages or differences did you find working with the publisher (if any)?

Kerschbaum: Actually, I waited until Petey & Pussy was nearly completed before I submitted it to publishers, so the creative process was, for the most part, over with before Fantagraphics got involved. But they were very supportive and enthusiastic about the book. It was the first time, however, I had someone else design the package for one of my stories. I tend to be very hands-on so it was an exercise in letting go for me. But Jacob Covey was really easy to work with and I'm thrilled with what he did. I think the cover looks really sharp and bold but then has all these little hidden jokes and subtle visual gags scattered about in a way that I like to think nicely reflects my work. He's a very talented guy.

O'Shea: Congrats on the Eisner nomination for Petey & Pussy, what's been the positive fallout from that nomination to date? How did you find out you had gotten the nomination? [Side Note:  Herbie Archives, by “Sean O’Shea” (Richard E. Hughes) and Ogden Whitney (Dark Horse) won this past weekend at SDCC.]

Kerschbaum: Thanks! I have to admit I was quite surprised. I figured that because of the rather visceral humor and the salty language that it was the kind of thing that could easily be dismissed. So I'm really pleased it's been nominated and I hope that it piques the interest of some folks who might not have otherwise been inclined to check it out or for that matter even heard of it. I'm not sure that's happening, but it's fun to pretend!

And I found out the same way everyone else does, I believe. Mr. Eisner came to me in a dream to tell me the book had been nominated. He also mentioned that he'd roll over in his grave if it won.

O'Shea: Not all of your work is for adults, in fact your work has appeared frequently in Nickelodeon's magazine, and you recently did a rather large ambitious project for The Metropolitan Museum of Art. How did the Met project come about--and given it's complexity how long did it take you to do?

Kerschbaum: I enjoy doing stuff for kids. The next two personal projects I hope to tackle are a children's picture book and an all-age graphic novel. And Nick Mag is one of my favorite clients [Side note: Much like my interview with Evan Dorkin last week, this interview took place before Nick magazine's unfortunate demise]. They are great to work for and I consider myself lucky every time they give me a call. In fact, the project I did for the Met sprung from one of the first assignments I did for Nick; a puzzle maze of an art museum. It's a piece I still consider a highlight of my career. I took it to Masha Turchinski in the Education Department at the Met, for whom I had previously done work for, and proposed doing some sort of puzzle for them, unsure of the context. As it ended up they were in the initial stages of redesigning their Family Map and she thought my idea would work nicely in it. I originally thought it would take a year or so to complete but it ended up taking nearly four. They were incredibly patient and supportive and I believe they're happy with the outcome. They're in the process now of turning it into a jigsaw puzzle for sale in their gift shop.

O'Shea: You wrapped the comic Randy and The Christmas Pimple with red bow. When you first conceived the story, did you always plan on wrapping it in a bow (that blocks the title and throw off people's expectation for the story) or is that an idea you came up while developing the story?

Kerschbaum: As much as I enjoy doing the covers for my comics and minis I don't consider myself a real "designer." My basic strategy is that every element has a reason for being there. Subverting the reader's expectations is something I enjoy doing. So it just made sense to wrap what I think may be one of the nastiest X-mas stories ever told in a pretty bow. As with all my covers, it came about after the story was done.

O'Shea: Do you think that web comics will entertain you long term as a creator as much as self-publishing clearly has?

Kerschbaum: I should point out that I'm not super web-savvy but it seems to me that it's currently the best, cheapest way to find and build and audience. I think cartoonists today need to have some kind of online presence. I'm thinking of launching a weekly online strip just as a test for myself; to see if I can keep to such a schedule. But for it to make sense to me, it should be the kind of thing that for whatever reason, could ONLY be read online. I haven't figured that part out yet. Maybe it's not necessary... I'm not sure. In the meantime, I add content to my Fontanelle Press website semi-regularly. And I hope to get some new comics up there soon.

O'Shea: What's on the creative horizon for you?

Kerschbaum: I'm currently working on a short story for a Sammy Harkam-edited Simpson's Treehouse of Horror anthology (issue #16, I believe) which, to the best of my knowledge, has an awesome group of cartoonists involved as only Sammy could put together.

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