To kick off my round of Wordstock interviews, I spoke to Jonathan Hill, illustrator of Americus. Jonathan is here in Portland, so I was able to stop by and see his studio space. His drafting table and cart with brushes, pens, and supplies took up a large portion of the attic room, with his computer desk next to that. At the end of the room was a packed bookshelf, full of comics and other books.
Americus was written by MK Reed and is published by First Second Books.
GeekDad: Are you ready for Wordstock this weekend?
Jonathan Hill: You know, I’m on this panel about banned books, and I’m with these other people. They’ve had books banned, and I just … drew a book about books being banned. I feel like I’m not going to have anything to contribute to the discussion.
GD: Well, getting into banned books: obviously Americus is based on the controversy surrounding the Harry Potter books. Have you had any personal experience with that, dealing with people who were against Harry Potter or any other sort of censorship?
JH: I haven’t, no. I’m not sure if MK had, either. It was more that she drew her inspiration from that. My only experience with censorship was when I was in Kuwait for high school. I remember one year we got new high school text books. Even though it was an American school, they didn’t teach about the Holocaust because it’s a Muslim state. So that was kind of weird. We got these textbooks, and we were all given Sharpies, and we had to black out the Holocaust, any mention of Persia, I think.
And I thought, this is ridiculous, because we had to read it to know what we were supposed to black out. Plus, you’re putting this in the hands of a bunch of high schoolers who don’t really care, you know? That’s the only censorship story I really have.
GD: Did any of the high schoolers think, “Oh, I’m going to read this now, because it’s being censored”?
JH: I don’t know, I think for a lot of us that were Americans, we knew what the Holocaust was, so it seemed kind of silly. The other students that were there who weren’t American, like the ones from Kuwait, they still had American friends … Even if people black stuff out, you would still know.
GD: Tell me a little bit about your background. You said you’ve lived in Portland for about 8 years now…
JH: My dad’s company contracts with the army, so I was a pseudo Army brat. We moved around every 4 years. I was in Kuwait for most of high school. Then I moved to Eugene (Oregon) for about a year because my mom lives there. I went to the Savannah College of Art and Design.
I have a degree in comics, which I totally didn’t plan on getting. I actually went to school for an illustration degree, but after about two years it felt really boring. It just didn’t feel like it was challenging me, and it didn’t excite me. I didn’t know what else to do — I could only draw; I’m not a good photographer, I couldn’t do all these other things. My neighbor at the time said, “Dude, you should try comics out!” And I was like: “That sounds like the dumbest idea ever.”
But I took some intro comics classes, and I totally fell in love with it. It was great — a bunch of professors who were just starting at the time were industry professionals who were teaching. I really felt like I lucked out and got these teachers who were also doing professional work. So it was really exciting to learn from them.
Then I came here [Portland] and figured I’d just continue to do comics and illustration. It took a while, because I basically felt that when I got here, I had to re-learn everything. When I was in school, I really enjoyed it, but I don’t think it soaked in, if that makes sense.
It’s different when you have to do it yourself. It’s easy to do it when somebody else tells you: here’s a deadline, here’s where you get a grade. But when you’re first starting out, your work isn’t where it needs to be, you’re not getting any paid work, so you basically just have to do it on your own to build it up. So it’s only been within the last three or four years that things have really picked up.
And then I’ve been working on Americus, which took about three years, so that’s what I’ve been doing.
GD: Did you read a lot of comics as a kid?
JH: As a kid, I read comics. You know, as a teenager I read things like Spiderman, X-men, and whatnot. There was sort of a break when I went to Kuwait for high school because it was just harder to get comics.
When I was in college, people were showing me things like: here’s Chester Brown, here’s Dan Clowes, these people I hadn’t heard of. I think I’d read Maus, which was like, Whoa, it’s so different! Definitely it was something I got back into once I was in college.
GD: What are some of your favorites, or some that you feel have had an influence on your own work?
JH: It’s weird, because it’s hard for me to just pinpoint. Every time I read something that was so different to me, it’s hard to say: Well, here you can see Eightball, or here you can see someone else’s influence. I think the biggest thing for me is moving to Portland, being part of the comics scene. Meeting other people that are doing the same thing, trying to break into the industry, seeing what they’re doing.
In the last couple years, a lot of these books that we’ve been working on are finally getting published, or people are getting picked up by publishers. That’s really exciting to me, to see these people who are in a similar position to me growing, and making it. It’s kind of funny, being an artist — you’re stoked, but at the same time you’re a little jealous when someone’s book comes out two years before yours. Aauugh!
But as far as inspiration, that’s been my biggest inspiration, is to have these other people who are going through the same thing that I am.
JH: Greg Means in Portland runs Tugboat Press and they publish this great anthology called Papercutter. He publishes it three or four times a year. It’s great, because he finds a lot of cartoonists that you might not have heard of. I feel like a lot of alternative comic anthologies are great, but they’re the usual suspects. It’s the same alternative people, so it’s not as exciting. Yeah, it’s great to see new stuff that they’ve done, but you’re not getting to discover anyone new.
Greg does such a great job with Papercutter because there are so many people that I’ve never heard of before in there. So he’d seen MK’s work because she’d drawn a lot of her own stuff before writing Americus. And he’d known me from the Portland comics scene, and he’d wanted to work with both of us.
MK had this idea for Americus, and Greg thought he’d kill two birds with one stone and get us both working on this at the same time. So that’s how he put me in touch with MK.
At first, we were just going to do the first chapter in Papercutter, and Greg said maybe if we liked it and we worked well together it could be a longer book. At first I was a little hesitant at the time. I didn’t want to be committed for three or four years to do a book. But at the same time, I wasn’t working on anything big at the time. I think it was really good to have a deadline, to have somebody else I had to check in with. I think it’s important to realize that about yourself if you do freelance work. I need somebody to tell me, it’s due at this time.
So anyway, we did the first chapter for Papercutter, and then we just kept going with it.
GD: So how did it end up at First Second Books?
JH: MK knew some people at First Second just from being part of the comics scene in New York City. I don’t think we pitched it to them until it was about two thirds of the way done. So I think it was easier for them because they didn’t have to gamble on something — they could see all this work already. For me, it was great — we just got our book picked up? That seemed so easy!
But now, working on my next book, I’m kind of realizing that that’s what you have to do. I just have to kind of sit on it for a couple years, and have the work to show, instead of pitching a concept. For First Second, now they know I can draw, but they don’t know how my writing is.
GD: How did you collaborate with MK? Did she send you a finished script, and you did the drawings based on that, or did you have input on the script, and she gave you input on the character design and drawings? How much back and forth was there?
JH: It was pretty separate. We did everything over the internet. It’s funny, I was doing a reading recently in Seattle and somebody asked the question: did you ever talk on the phone? And I thought, oh my god, we didn’t! I think it was maybe a year into the project, and it just didn’t even occur to me to call her. We just did everything through email.
Basically she would send me a script that she and Greg would look over, and then I would look over it and mention anything that I thought wasn’t quite right. Then she might tweak it, and then I would start drawing. We set up a private blog for just the three of us and another friend Galen Longstreth who was editing it too. I would post the pages, and they would critique the pages, and through the comments we could decide if I messed up, or if I did something for a particular reason. At the end of each chapter, we’d compile all the changes that I needed to make.
I think that helped with pitching it, too. It wasn’t this rough draft, but it had already been edited some. So when First Second got it, there were only a handful of changes they had me make, which was nice.
It was interesting, because there weren’t a whole lot of changes to the script once MK had done it, and she kind of left the character design to me. It took us a little time to work out how to work with each other. Like in the first chapter, some of the layout is a little awkward. I think what MK is really great at is dialogue, and it’s great to read. But the more dialogue in a panel, the less space I have to draw. And in some layouts, I’m trying to pace out how I want the story, but there’s so much text that there are so many tiers on each page. Later on in the book, I was given a little more to breathe, and I think that’s something that took us a little time to figure out how we each work.
At first I was going a little crazy, thinking that First Second was going to make me go back and totally re-draw the entire first chapter, and that was going to be another two months of work. But they didn’t, and afterwards I really like it because it kind of shows this process of us learning to work with each other.
GD: I can tell by your workspace here that you do your illustrations on paper, right?
JH: I do everything by hand: first pencils, then a brush and ink. I use a brush for pretty much everything these days. And then I’ll scan that in, and tweak things. Like I try to get the lettering pretty close, but I could spend half an hour trying to get it perfect, or I could scan it in, and move it in ten seconds in Photoshop.
So I use the computer a lot — I use it for all my coloring — but I definitely try to do as much by hand as I can. And it’s not that I’m a snob, like “you shouldn’t use computers at all!” but I just like doing it that way.
What’s nice about having it on paper, too, is that then you have this work to show. We had all the pages of Americus on display at Powell’s just recently. It was pretty cool to see all 200 pages up on a wall. It was kind of scary, though, because you’re like, this is three years of my life. On a wall. But it’s so different from seeing in a stack in a flat drawer.
And it made me feel better about my work, because I was worried that I’d see all this whiteout and blank panels from where I scanned and copied a frame in Photoshop, but I guess I did less of that than I thought.
GD: Do you have anything that you’re working on now?
JH: After we got done with Americus, MK and Greg had been working on a script, and they’d just sold it to First Second, and I had that same feeling of, well, now I have to figure out what I’m going to do because I don’t want to be left behind. I don’t want to fall into a slump. But it’s hard, because you can’t just come up with what you want to do next.
I had all these ideas but they were more conceptual but they didn’t have any meat to them, or they weren’t personal. But I felt really good when I finally got an idea and I knew that it was what I wanted to work on next. So now that the promotion stuff for Americus is sort of dying down, I’ll get to sit down and work on that next, so I’m excited about that.