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    Bound for Greatness?

    One of my biggest celebrity sightings at San Diego Comic-Con International was The Simpsons creator Matt Groening. I didn’t see him in a panel or signing autographs — he was waiting to buy a book from Top Shelf’s newest rising star, Aaron Renier. Renier’s debut book, Spiral Bound, launches in August and features an assortment of animal characters in an original children’s tale. I recently sat down in a New York’s Union Square to talk about the launch of his new book.

    When I met you in San Diego, Matt Groening was there.
    Yeah that was pretty cool!

    What was that like?
    It was great. He just walked up and said he really got my work and I asked him where he’d seen it before and he was like, “Right Here!” and he slapped the book and it was fantastic. It was flattering and a half hour earlier, Craig McCracken who does Powerpuff girls came by and bought a book, and I was like, you’re Craig McCracken! Those were two like, star moments, that were really great.

    It was really weird, because you had just started to sketch for someone else.
    Yeah, and Matt just had this posse around him, and I was in the middle of someone’s sketch, and I had this dilemma: Do I push aside this normal person for him? But he was like, “No, no, go ahead.” I was afraid he was going to walk away. But He was really great, really nice.

    How did you get started?
    I started doing comics like this as a serialized piece, and I was hoping that after I had this huge pile of them I’d be able to publish them in a newspaper. I met Brett Warnock (co-publisher of Top Shelf Comix) in Portland, he saw the pages. He said, “We would publish this if you actually get this in the newspaper.” And I realized that I didn’t have that sort of drive to really push it — I wasn’t confident enough in it, so basically I took the basic premise of the story and I did it as a graphic novel.

    So he saw it, said he liked it and he would publish it but wasn’t going to publish it the way it was, but that he would serialize it.

    When was this originally supposed to come out?
    Last year

    And what was the holdup?
    I guess I didn’t know how long it would take to do. I underestimated. It took a little over two years to do the book, but in my head it was a month. I realized how much I was really going to go into each page, and I had a day job, and it was a lot harder than I thought it would be. Drawing took the longest. Writing it was just a couple months. That was a two-year section — the drawing.

    You mentioned you were at SVA for a semester. What kind of art background do you have?
    I’m self-taught. I was really into comic strips when I was younger, like Calvin and Hobbes. Those were bigger influence on me. I was also into reading Batman and things like that. I like really simple stories. My mother was an art teacher — she is an art teacher — so I’ve always had art in my family. And comics always seemed like the most approachable thing for me. You could always draw comics, even on scratch paper draw a little character or comics. The reason that newspaper comics were such an influence on me is that they were delivered to my house. The art was literally delivered to your house every day. And there really isn’t anything else like that.

    How did you establish your style?
    It’s easier for me to approach, and easier for readers, if it’s simple. I have a tendency to really draw a lot of things, but instead of drawing details on the face and over-rendering things, I like to over-render backgrounds. And have really simple characters in a really complex world. It’s more simple for the reader and me to identify with. They’re more iconic that way. And the fact that they’re animals really kind of dismisses any sort of race. Everybody is somebody; no one is better than anybody else. They don’t talk about the elephants in the context of being elephants; they talk about them as like, having a large nose or big ears. Having really simple animal characters is an easy way of getting into the story.

    Was that something you thought of beforehand? Or after?
    Well when I was in college I started drawing animals a lot, and I started realizing that in a lot of assignments it was like, make sure you have a Puerto Rican! Stuff like that. There was just too much thoughts like that and I wanted to bypass all that.

    Do you use animals for reference?
    Not really, no. I mean, the rabbit doesn’t really look like a rabbit. It’s more simple shapes, with longer ears. The teacher, Ms. Skrimshaw, is a whale, and I definitely had a couple whale photographs and a plastic sculpture to see what a whale looked like, but I always manipulated it so it didn’t seem like I was drawing a plastic whale.

    Do you have any fear that because of the animal nature, it will be a hard book to market?
    I don’t know. I guess I didn’t think about it very much. I think that maybe. If it does, I have no problem with that. I feel like it’s my freshman effort, and if it sells somewhat poorly, I really have confidence in a couple more projects. Top shelf has Chunky Rice, Owly, a lot of animal stories, and they seem to be doing fine. I don’t think I’m doing anything terribly radical.

    When you were writing this, what kind of audience did you have in mind?
    Kids. Which is slightly strange because Top Shelf doesn’t get into the stores that I was thinking for this book. I meant for it to be for people who were the age when I started getting into comics, around 12. I realized Top Shelf might not be able to get me that audience. I’m hoping that like, older siblings will say, “Oh, hey, my brother would like this book,” you know, word of mouth to get the readership that I am hoping for. For right now it’s just like the graphic novel demographic of twenty-year-olds. But hopefully that will lead to a younger audience.

    How did you go about writing for a kid without sounding condescending?
    It was more context. What the story was about, there are words in this book that a 12-year-old would have to ask their parents what it means. I wasn’t trying to dumb it down at all. There are secret passages in it, monsters, those are things that I was interested in at the time, so I put that in. I wanted it to be interesting for that group, but I wasn’t necessarily writing it for that group. I was using my natural voice.

    I heard that you wanted to stay away from comics when you started this, from reading other comics?
    In the beginning I did want to, but it didn’t last very long. I read comics all the time. I think initially I wanted to make it as fresh as possible, I didn’t want seem like I was referencing anything else. Like, “Oh, this is just like a Jordan Crane book that’s out.” I wanted to have the idea in my head of what I wanted it to be and I felt like if I was reading a lot of comics I would think, “Oh, I should add that.” But that didn’t happen, and as soon as I started reading comics again, I was already going the way that I was going to go.

    Was it originally supposed to be in color?
    Originally it was supposed to be in black and white but then Chris (Staros, co-publisher) and Brett came up to me, I think it was in Chicago convention and they said they saw a lot of books in full color, and I thought that would be great, even though I didn’t draw it in full color. Because coloring a full page takes as long as drawing a full page. So that would take at least an extra year. So I told them I’d like to do a two-color book — that seemed pretty interesting to me. So I colored the first thirty pages and we sent them to the printer, and the way that I had them was that all my line art was double, so if by overprinting for a third color, so I would have two colors and then by overprinting you would get like three separate colors, and they said that their printing process wasn’t precise enough in the lettering to do that. And it wasn’t the way I wanted it to be. I initially had drawn it in black and white, and I didn’t want to deal with it, so I left it in black in white. Maybe if there were a second printing, I would do it in color. But that wouldn’t be for a while.

    Have you thought about the possibility of kids who are reading it coloring it in?
    That definitely seems fun. If that happens I would love to see it.

    With the rounded corners, and notebook style, was that there from the get go?
    Yeah, every little thing, we’d get excited about it. “Hey, we could put rounded corners on it!” I think that was Chris’ idea. I always liked the way that that looks.

    You lettered the whole thing as well. How did that work? Do you have background in that?
    I don’t know. I think that it could be better. I did the first 20 pages, in all caps, in pencil. and I realized that it looked softer if I had lowercase so I went back and relettered the beginning, and I don’t feel extremely confident in my lettering. When I look at a comic that has amazing lettering — wow. I didn’t want a font. Even a font of my own handwriting, it just seems so sterile. It is my own handwriting, so I feel like it fits with my work. So it works, in that way.

    When you were drawing this, what type of tools did you use?
    Standard pencil, a vellum Bristol board. And a No.2 brush.

    Did you pencil and then go back?
    I pencil really tight, and then ink. And then I have a felt tipped pen that I’d do my letters with. It soaks into the paper more.

    What was your decision not to have a lot of grays?
    I guess I wanted it to be more the texture of things, like the ground texture. I do gray once in a while, but like on the rocks, having textures on the rocks and having things sitting on top of them, I like the way that looks.

    How do you think that contrasts the story?
    Probably in a negative way. I can’t see it being any different, but if it were somehow softer, and I think color would lend itself to that. It would make it softer on the eyes. There’s something about color that I see as a crutch, but I love color and I hope my next book is color, either full color or two colors. But I think the drawing has to hold up.

    What’s your biggest fear before the book comes out?
    I guess I don’t have any big fear. I’ve read some reviews and stuff, and it’s been really nice so far. And I know that people will eventually get into it. In my notebook I have a list of things that I think are wrong with this book. But I hope I can check some of those off. Like, I have an elephant that really resembles Babar, and I’m worried people are going to say, “Oh that looks like Babar.”
    The fact that I’m reference something doesn’t mean I’m lifting it. I could have chosen different animals, like more original. But that’s not the point of the story. The fact that I’m using animals that are used all the time, that’s just like a comfort level. And I hope people will read it and approach it like that.

    Do you ever experience anyone not taking you as an artist seriously?
    No, I haven’t been in many discussions where they question the validity of my work, but I’m sure that will happen.

    What do you think about the quality of children’s comics available nowadays?
    Pretty horrible, really mainstream. You have to already be a cartoonist on TV to really make a comic about it. I was just at Forbidden Planet, in the children’s section. And its just like Cartoon Network. I can’t think of very many good ones — I’m sure I’m bypassing some, like Jeff Smith — that’s a book that could be picked up by anybody. But as far as independent, I can’t think of any… there’s Owly.

    Why?
    I don’t know. You always see things, like this article in the New York Times, I think the headline was “Wham, Bam, Comics Aren’t For Kids Anymore,” but they haven’t been for kids for SO long. I don’t know why they’re making it into a phenomenon now. They haven’t been for kids for a really long time. I don’t know why it’s like that. I think it’s sad, and I think that authors who are working on these things who are in their ’20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, and have problems that those people have, they’re writing for who they are, for their age group. For someone to do something for kids, it always seems it has to be mainstream, like, “I want to do something for Cartoon Network.” At least for independent comics, I think that’s the reason why there’s not much there.

    What are you doing now?
    I’m putting together another project. I would like to do more kids comics but I’d also like to increase my demographic.

    Does that involve changing your art style?
    I don’t think my next couple projects will involve animals. If I do something else with Top Shelf, I think it would be animals. But I don’t think that will be in the near future. I think my next project will be humans.

    I just noticed Owly came out with a plush figurine. Is that something you’ve thought about?
    They’ve talked about doing that. Brett met this guy in Portland who works with PVC figurines, we thought about doing a set, if it actually becomes anything. But if that ever happens, that will be a while from now. I’m not counting on it.

    What do you think it the most important thing you learned with this whole first project?
    I think in the beginning it was hard for me to push things, to make things come forward that needed to come forwards. That was something that I was struggling with. It was something that I was working on subconsciously but something that I sometimes fall short.

    —Interview by Tim Leong

    Posted by Tim Leong on August 21st, 2005 filed in Story Archive |

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