Last weekend at Wordstock, I sat in on a panel with Jonathan Hill and Vera Brosgol, both Portland-based cartoonists who have published books with First Second Books this past year. They both shared a bit about their process and read a little from their books. Since I’d just read Anya’s Ghost myself, I decided to do an impromptu interview with Brosgol after the panel.
Be sure to check out Kathy Ceceri’s review of Anya’s Ghost from earlier this year.
GeekDad: So, how long have you been in Portland?
Vera Brosgol: Since December 2005, so almost six years.
GD: I know this is your first book, but have you been doing other work in cartooning and comics?
VB: I work in storyboarding at Laika [animation studio], so I pretty much draw all day. I don’t necessarily write all day, so that’s the hard part of comics for me. I feel like I’ve kind of kept my toe in comics but I don’t feel like I’m really part of the comics community here in Portland, which is too bad because it’s a good one. It’s been a part of my life since I was an early teen. I’ve always done something. It took a while to work up to wanting to, or being able to, do a long-form story that works. Something big where you can take a step back and have it make sense, and have a theme, and a point, pacing, and all that stuff.
GD: How much did you have done when you sold your book to First Second? Did you have to pitch it to them, or did they discover you?
VB: Agents! I got an agent through my work in the Flight anthologies, Judith Hansen. She represented the anthologies and their creator, Kazu Kibuishi. So for anyone who was in Flight she’ll at least take a look at their project, and if she likes it she’ll represent it and try to sell it for them. So I came to her with about the first 30 pages, and basically told her what was going to happen. And she took a look at it and said, “Okay, keep going. Why don’t you just finish drawing it, because you don’t have a script.”
I don’t know how to write a script and I’m not gonna try. Some people can, some people can just sit down and hack one out, but I feel like when you’re drawing you make up so much of it as you go. If you’re writing a script you’re probably going to throw away half of it anyway. I know people who do write scripts who say that: “I write it, but I don’t necessarily use it.”
So I wound up drawing the entire book, penciled, and then I just came to her with the whole book. Apparently that’s easier to sell because then they know there’s no surprises. They know exactly what they’re getting.
GD: Right, but it’s a lot more up-front work on your end, and you’re not getting paid for it.
VB: Exactly. But this isn’t what I do for a living, it’s like a labor of love. I just did it because I thought it would be fun.
GD: That’s cool that you have the ability to do that. When I first moved to Portland the first time and started being an artist, I realized that I could do this because my wife is working and I don’t have to rely on my artwork to support my family. But I did meet a lot of people who were doing that: people who quit their jobs to work on their artwork full-time, and that seemed terrifying.
VB: I have some friends who did that, and it is, but you can ease into it. You start making money doing it, and then you can see if that money is the same as what you’re currently making, or enough to live on at least. Or sometimes people lose their jobs by accident, and they think, well, you know, I’m just going to take this as the kick in the butt to pursue my art full-time. But I know a lot of people who have day jobs and do the comics in the evenings. It just makes you slower.
I think that’s good in a way, because it keeps the comics from getting too drudgy. I think if I did comics full-time I’d lose my mind. You’re so lonely! You’re so lonely. In animation there’s so many people to talk to. Everyone’s doing something different and you can just walk downstairs and there’s someone sawing something, or programming a camera, or building a tiny little chair. It’s really cool — it’s nice to be stimulated.
The thing with Periscope, here in Portland, is it’s a bunch of comic book artists who all share office space. They all come in and treat it like an office, where they do their comics all day at a desk, but they have coworkers. They can help each other, and talk to somebody, and not talk to a cat. I think that’s the best way to do it.
GD: I’ve heard of shared-office situations before, for telecommuters, but I think that’d be great for artists.
VB: Yeah, it’s perfect. If someone needs help on a story, say they have a tight deadline, they can get the person next to them to pitch in. There’s a few things like that here, actually. There’s another one Tranquility Base that’s a few different artists, Sarah Oleksyk and Lisa Eisenberg and some others. But I think Periscope might be the first one.
GD: What’s it like working at Laika? Did they start up within the past six or seven years?
VB: Well, it started as Wil Vinton, which is a really old animation studio that did the California Raisins. I don’t know all the details, but Phil Knight bought the company. I don’t know the whole story; I’m sure it’s documented somewhere. Phil’s son Travis is an animator and is super-passionate about animation. He’s CEO and he’s still animating, he goes out on the stage and does a shot, and is just a really nice guy.
Yeah, it’s a place with some history but it’s also kind of new, and they’re really committed.
GD: It had a reboot.
VB: Yeah, it had an awesome reboot.
GD: What have you worked on there?
VB: Well, so far all their features. There have been two productions [Coraline and Paranorman] and I’ve been on both of them. It’s been great. They also have a commercial side of things called Laika House, and they do commercials like M&Ms commercials. That’s their quick, profitable work. And then there’s Entertainment which does things like artistic films which take much longer and don’t necessarily make as much money.
[I gush about animation and blab about my own experiences trying to make animation, including the story about my only all-nighter during college, when I was working in a windowless basement on my animation project and came out and it was morning.]
VB: Yep, that’s how it goes. You just do that, but for four years.
GD: How long did it take you to do Anya’s Ghost?
VB: I started it in 2007 and there were big lulls, but I handed in the finished artwork in 2009, and then finished the cover in 2010. So it took three years total, with gaps. Then there’s a full year on the end for printing, and marketing, and all of that which comes with a book publisher. It took a long time. I don’t think it necessarily had to take that long, but because I was working, I didn’t really have a choice. I like to think I could’ve done it in a year, but who knows? It’s really hard on your hands, too.
GD: When I was talking to Jonathan Hill yesterday, he was telling me that he spent three years drawing Americus…
VB: They definitely don’t pay you three years’ worth!
GD: I know, that’s incredible! Even with writing a novel I know it takes a long time and is a lot of work, but you can write a whole lot and you can write several pages in one sitting, and you can’t really ink that many pages in a short time.
VB: Well, some people can — some people have figured that out.
GD: Right. But I know for myself that when you read a graphic novel, you can read it really quickly. You can finish it —
VB: — in half an hour.
GD: Exactly. You sit and you read through the whole thing, and you’re done, and you want more. I love reading comics, but I don’t always think about how long it takes to produce a book of this length.
VB: I think the artists try not to think about how long it takes to produce, either. As soon as you work out what you make per day, you immediately just want to stop. Little bite-sized things: today, I’m gonna do one page, and then one day it’ll all be done. One page a day. Magically, one day you’re finished.
GD: I’ve been reading Kazu’s Amulet series. My daughter loves them, and she discovered them when I had just gotten Book 2. She read the first two in an afternoon, and then said, “Okay, I’m done! Where’s the third one?” And I had to tell her it wasn’t done yet, that Book 2 just came out. And then when the third one came out she read that in one sitting. She’s read them over and over again while waiting for the next one.
VB: I think that’s what you have to do.
GD: He’s putting them out like one a year, which is amazing.
VB: Yeah, and he’s got a whole production crew, too, it’s not just him.
GD: Right, I knew that, but even with a whole team, to turn out a book a year has to be so much work.
VB: Kazu is unusual, though. He’s such a businessman, and he thinks about all that stuff, like where the money’s all going, and investing in this business. He’s a genius.
GD: I really liked the Flight anthologies. What I like about them, and other anthologies, is getting a taste of so many people’s work. I spot a story, and then I can go read more of that person’s work.
VB: It’s awesome for people to practice, to try out a story. It’s like a catalog, or a yearbook.
GD: Well, thanks for talking to me today!
VB: No problem, I always love talking about comic books.
For more about Vera Brosgol, visit her site www.verabee.com.