Many comic artists have been dubbed the ‘rockstar’ of their generation. There’s a new one every year if you read the broadsheets.
But very few actual musicians – rockstars or not – have ever made the leap to comics, let alone started here.
In that sense, Jeffrey Lewis is an anomaly. An artist better known for his music, but more interested in his comics. A live performer equally comfortable thrashing punk melodies as he is lecturing on the political intricacies of Watchmen. OFF LIFE managed to grab an hour of the comic making, anti-folk recording Jeffrey Lewis’ time to ask how he knows when to sing and when to draw.
You’ve said that it was newsstand comics that got you into the medium, but now comics can pretty much only be found in comic or bookshops. How do you think that’s affected things?
Part of the random nature of my comic collection when I was a kid was down to the newsstand. You never knew quite what you were gonna get. When you’re a kid, you don’t really have the power to buy one when you want. If you’re in a magazine shop and you’re with your mum, you just get what’s on the stand.
So when comic shops came in – for me it was like 1982 – they were great. I mean a whole shop dedicated to comics? Amazing.
What I think really has killed the comics industry over the last 10-15 years is that all the good comic artists want to get into bookstores. The best people are just putting all their efforts into what you get in bookstores and that cuts the comic store out of the equation. Artists don’t care so much about the comic’s audience these days, they want the high cultured book shop audience. But that’s a whole other topic.
We interviewed Gilbert Hernandez a few months back, and he mentioned that comic shops created a sort of comics’ ghetto – cutting out the casual reader. It seems bookshops are going in search of them again, so it’s interesting you say that it’s killing things off…
Anytime you have something that’s underground or outside of mainstream culture, when it gets to a certain level of quality, it seeps out into the mainstream – so that people like the Hernandez Brothers can actually make some money for their efforts and get some recognition.
When you sell a comic in a comic store, it’s probably not getting reviewed in The New York Times. But if you collect a few into a book and release it at a bookstore, all of a sudden you’ll get reviews and a legitimate literary mark. You get an academic, high-minded cultural acceptance.
Now that’s all deserved, because they’re creating great culture, but in removing that level of quality from the underground – it kind of betrays the comic stores who’ve been supporting those artists for sometimes decades.
It’s the same in music. When an underground artist ‘makes it’ they can either stay and legitimise the underground or they can make the leap to mainstream… and most make the leap. What that leaves you is an underground scene that is missing some of its best quality and in danger of not staying afloat.
Comics have always been a cool thing in the margins. Comics themselves have never been able to become mainstream culture like television or movies or rappers or video games.
It’s been decades since comics were at the forefront of culture. It’s such a low tech form of storytelling that, in a way, it’s kind of insane they still exist. Ink on paper is just so simple, but that also keeps it cool and marginal. You have to be willing and interested in culture that isn’t advertised on TV just to be into them at all – and I think that keeps them interesting.
Despite it being Fantastic Four and newsstand comics that got you into the medium, your work is very much indie or underground minded. When did that transition happen for you?
In some ways I was lucky that when I outgrew one field of comic books, a more engaging form of comics were developing. I’m really the perfect age to have grown up alongside comics. By the time I was 11 I was already aware of the black and white underground comics like Elf Quest and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that offered a little more to the older reader than Marvel type stuff.
Then by the time I was 13, in the mid-late eighties, there was Alan Moore and Frank Miller to discover. By the time I was a teenager there was this higher level of comics that were available for me. By college there was Fantagraphics stuff like Eightball.
I was making comics this whole time, and so it’s like my own development grew up alongside the development of the whole medium.
So when you say that my work is indie-inspired, it’s true that over the last 15 years my biggest inspirations have been Joe Sacco or Daniel Clowes, but by the same token, I’m much more routed in a kind of Marvel comics illustration style than most indie artists. I feel much more like an illustrator than a cartoonist.
As well as being a comic artist you’re also a professional musician. When you have a creative idea, or a topic you’d like create around, how do you choose which medium to use? Are there types of stories you can tell in comics that you can’t in music?
It’s something that I have to decide, and it can go either way. Comics are more meditative, they slow down the pace of the communication so you can really take things a little slower.
A song is wonderful because it has immediate impact, but with comics you can tell your story in a much more measured way. You can take a few pages to build up to
something happening, whereas in pop or rock, if you don’t grab somebody from the get go, you might loose them. Maybe comics are more like classical music, where you can layer the themes and then build to an overture.
Just like folk or punk music, comics are very accessible to create. You don’t need a budget or a team of people or that many tools, so it’s a very simple form of communication. What’s great about comics is that although it’s easy to get started, there are no real limits to where you can take it.
Considering how accessible comics are to create, are you surprised that there aren’t more varied, diverse voices in the medium?
I think there are a lot of voices in comics, but sometimes it takes a bit of digging around to find them. The indie comics world has one foot in the zine world, so you definitely have varied voices there – a lot of young people who are able to communicate in comics form, who wouldn’t have access to communicating through film or TV shows.
As far as mainstream comics, I don’t really know what’s going on in that world these days. I know there’s been something of a golden age going on, people tell me that books like Y: The Last Man are great, but I’m totally unaware. If Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman do something then I’ll check it out, but otherwise I’m kinda stuck in the nineties.
Talking of people putting work out, when can we expect a new comic from you?
Issue nine of my Fuff series came out in January and I’ve been writing some scripts for issue 10 and plots for issue 11, plus these illustrated songs I do a couple of every year.
I look back at the last couple years and think, ‘Where has all my time gone? I haven’t put out a new album, I haven’t put out a new comic. What have I been doing?’ I think the Sonic Youth project last year, where I wrote a sonnet for three records of their songs and then illustrated it – I think that ate a big chunk of time. But yeah I need to put out some new comics and some new albums.
We’ve been saying that comics are low tech and accessible, but also not quick to create either…No, it takes a huge amount of time – and it’s not time that necessarily is gonna be rewarded. The amount of money you make or recognition you get from comics is just a fraction of what you get from music. I’m unknown in the comics field and the music field, but even being unknown in the music field means I’m reaching a certain number of people.
Music just reaches billions of people in general, so you don’t mind being pretty unknown because you can still reach a significant number of people. Or at least enough that you don’t feel like you’re creating in a vacuum. But the entire pool or comics readers is just a fraction of the entire pool of music listeners, so when you’re unknown in comics you’re really talking about hundreds of readers, not thousands. It means you have to do comics for the love of doing it.
If your music allows your ideas and creativity to reach a fairly decent size audience, then why do you come back to comics?
I’m in a strange position because, really, I think I have a lot more skill in illustration than I have in making music. I certainly know a lot more about drawing than I do about playing guitar. I’m very lucky that because of my music I have a wider audience for my comics.
Like you said, the lack of comics on newsstands meant that they kinda got ghettoised in comics shops. But I haven’t had that experience because my music lets me travel the
world and sell comics at the back of my shows to people who maybe haven’t picked up a comic before.
I often think, ‘Why don’t I slow down on the music and concentrate on comics?’, but really my comic sales in shops are just a fraction of what they are at my concerts – so quitting one medium would really hurt the other.
I always thought it was a terrible mistake for comics to not reach into music clubs or college campuses. If you could go into a cafe, or an indie cinema or a record shop and see a rack of comics like you used to see on a newsstand – it seems like that’s where indie comics would find their audience.
That’s pretty similar to what we’re trying to do with OFF LIFE. It’s going to sound like we’ve paid you to say that!
Well, to me it seems like an obvious thing for comics to be doing. It makes sense. So good luck to you guys.