The Austin English Interview (page one of three)
It's hard to categorize Jeff Nicholson in today's comics scene. He doesn't fit into the superhero crowd and he doesn't fit into (in his own words) the "hipster" scene of comics. However, his work is part of a small, but very noticeable movement in comics today. Along with Linda Medley, Jeff Smith, Mark Crilley, Zander Cannon, Gary Sassman, and a host of others, Nicholson is working at making comics more whimsical. More lighthearted. More fun. With the realease of Colonia, a story about a present-day young man, who suddenly finds himself surrounded by pirates, talking birds, fish men, and all other things that populate New World mythology, Nicholson is at the top of his craft. Colonia is relentlessly researched, with high attention to detail, and just as importantly, self-published.
Nicholson has been self publishing since the eighties, when he first released Ultra Klutz, which has been described as a strange spoof on Ultra Man, that soon turned into a masterful epic, with a huge variety of subjects gracing every issue. Nicholson is also the author of a story much darker and sophisticated than his other work: Through the Habitrails. Habitrails is the chilling story of office life, failed romances, and the cruelty of life, with a little bit of optimism shining throughout. It still remains quite disturbing though, especially with the admission from Nicholson that it is virtually all autobiographical (except for all the animal metaphors).
But with Colonia, a new day has dawned for Nicholson. He's finally enjoying comics again, something that hasn't been true for years. He also feels comfortable with self-publishing, all of which he discussed with me for an hour and a half, inside his office at Pacific Gas & Electric (like many cartoonists, Nicholson must have another job to support himself) in downtown San Francisco. One thing is obvious after reading this interview: Nicholson is having the time of his life, and it shows in Colonia.
Where and when did you grow up?
I was born in 1962, and grew up in Concord, CA, which is right across the bay and over the hill from San Francisco.
Did you end up going into the city a lot?
No. Very rarely. I remember driving to the city as a teenager and thinking I was driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, when I was on the Bay Bridge. (laughs) That's how unfamiliar I was with this side of the bay.
What kind of place was Concord?
It's a very dreary, suburban town, with a large population, but no real identity.
Not a place that would encourage creativity.
No. No, not at all.
Can you talk a little bit about your parents, and what they did?
Yeah, my folks are my role models for a good marriage.
You don't see much of that.
No. And they were very young when they had my brother and me . . . and they're just doing really great. I feel real fortunate, because I meet a lot of people with a lot of, like, problems with their parents, and all that. So I'm lucky to have a good relationship with my parents.
Can you recall anything in your childhood that you saw, or that your parents gave you, that might have spurred your interest in what your doing now for Colonia, such as the pirates and folklore?
Oh, my mom loaned me this book, I forget the title of it -- let's look it up (flips through copy of Colonia #1, sitting right next to him). My mom loaned me, Conquest of Paradise. A book about Columbus.
When you were a little kid?
No. Around the time of the 500 year anniversary, when there were a couple of movies coming out.
Oh yeah, like 1492 . . .
Yeah. And this book came out, and I was at my parents' house and saw it on the shelf, and said "Oh can I borrow this?" And that's where it all started, I mean essentially.
During the 500-year anniversary, I was in a school that just basically taught that Columbus was, y'know, the Devil basically.
Ah, right, right. Bad man!
This book was the same way. This book really slammed Western culture, basically. But it was a good book, because it really debunks the myths…
What about when you were a kid? Do you remember being influenced toward what Colonia was to be about? Or is that book really the genesis of Colonia?
Yeah it is and that's really a good point, because what's so special about Colonia, is that unlike all of my other series, Colonia has nothing to do with my past or my childhood. It's the first thing that I started completely fresh, just a couple of years ago, with no pre-conceptions, and no old influences.
Hmm. Because I would think that it would be something that you were interested in as a child, because it's something that's very accessible to a child. Can you recall being exposed to comics in general, as a child?
Yeah. I guess the kind of comics that influenced Colonia indirectly, because they're not, y'know, they're not about pirates…or fantasy, but comics like Kamandi by Jack Kirby.
That's when I first started reading comics regularly, when I was about 13 or so, in the early seventies. So Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth, it was kind of a post-apocalyptic comic, and it had that sense of adventure that has influenced Colonia.
Was it mainly Kirby who influenced you, or where there any other people at that time, that you recall influencing you?
Kirby definitely, probably some Bernie Wrightson at that time…because I was really into monsters at that time…and that's when Bernie Wrightson was doing Swamp Thing. I caught the tail end of that, when that was still new.
If you liked Swamp Thing it must have been neat to have Stephen Bissette do the introduction to Through the Habitrails.
Oh yeah…that was a big dream come true, to work with Steve.
On Taboo? (Note: Taboo was an ill-fated horror comic anthology, which serialized much of Through the Habitrails.)
Yeah. And then to actually have his introduction here (in Through the Habitrails), and that whole process, that was where I really felt like I grew up as a comic book artist . . . to be working with those people.
I like (Bissete's) stuff.
Definitely. And he influenced this work (taps Through the Habitrails).
But when I read the introduction, he said that you came to him with the work…
It was introduced to Steve by Dave Sim. And I sent Dave Sim copies just to show him, and he sent them to Steve, and Alan Moore and some other people, just because he was so excited about it. That led to Steve calling me, so that was…I remember the day that call came in and that was very exciting.
When do you remember first having interest in art? Or wanting a career in art or comic books?
Very, very early on. I can't remember when I didn't draw. I remember drawing at my grandmother's house, when I feel like, this maybe is impossible, but I wasn't even in kindergarten, I don't know, but I was just always drawing, as long as I can remember. And then I remember wanting to have a career as a cartoonist as early as third or fourth grade. This was the time when there were a lot of those monster hot rod artists going around. In the late sixties, there were Odd Rods trading cards and other things. Big Daddy Roth, and there were even model kits that were based on wacky monsters driving hot rods, and I use to build those . . .
Perfect concept. Monsters driving hot rods.
(laughs). Yeah, yeah. The models were designed after illustrations from cartoonists, and they'd (the illustrations) be on the box, and I remember as early as fourth grade, dreaming, that's what I want to do when I grow up: draw monsters driving hot rods, for a living, and grow a beard. That's when hippies where in vogue, y'know but…
Okay, did you go to art school? Lots of cartoonists talk about going to art school and hating it.
Indirectly, I went to a design school, which was graphic design, and so, I learned a lot about design there, but it wasn't an illustration program, per se. I've always rebelled against illustration teachers, unfortunately.
Yeah, because if you like art, it's hard to listen to somebody say…to teach you art. I hate that.
Exactly, exactly. Yeah and so I would always…I always rebelled, and would not draw what I was supposed to. I don't think I caught on to the value of learning until later on. I pretty much just drew the way I wanted to draw all throughout college. But I really did soak in the design, because I think that's an important part of comics.
Yeah you have to learn all aspects of comics.
Yeah, even designing the back matter pages, and the cover, and even the weight of the pages, in addition to just drawing skills, I think that's really important.
Was Ultra Klutz the first thing you self-published? How long have you been self-publishing?
Well, that was the very first book I did. It was in '81, and I believe I was seventeen, and that was an adventure…and an education as well.
Could you describe Ultra Klutz a little?
I've heard it described as a satire on Ultra Man, that turned into an adventure series…that…
That's the gist of it right there. And then I always hate to use comparisons but it is kind of like Cerebus, in the sense that it started out as something kind of whimsical, like Cerebus was just a little parody but you didn't know it was gonna go on for so long.
Yeah but when you look at like the first two issues of Cerebus, and then you look at like the current ones, it just like completely different, and it's mind boggling.
Like it was drawn by a completely different person. And I actually, I have to say, I really enjoyed the early Cerebus's a lot more than the newer stuff, just because they're self-contained stories, which is what I'm trying to do with Colonia now. He was so good at telling self-contained stories, for about the first 25 issues there. But Ultra Klutz was like that in the sense that it started off as something goofy, and it turned into something more, and I think the reason for that, with Ultra Klutz, and I would assume with Cerebus and a lot of other creations like that, is the character and the series become a repository for all of your creativity. You give yourself over to this one book and this one character, and everything creative you think of becomes an Ultra Klutz story! Even if it shouldn't have been, maybe it should have been a really good story about people, but no, you're determined that everything is going to be an Ultra Klutz story. So it becomes a place for all of your creative ideas to go to.
So, do you feel that helped your ideas, or putting them all into one place kind of limited you?
Both I suppose. It helped me because I always had a place to go, so whenever ideas would come up they were never discarded, they could instantly be funneled into this series. But then the downfall was that…
Your ideas had to be married to this concept.
Yeah, to this book. And if this book didn't appeal to certain people, they were never gonna read my stories, because they'd think "Ultra Klutz, stupid name" and never look at it. "Just a silly book." And that definitely happened, so I had to get beyond that.
Can you talk a little bit about, what actually goes into self-publishing? Because I think there's a lot of misconceptions associated with self-publishing.
Yeah definitely. People need to be aware that there's a huge difference between self-publishing and self-promoting. Self-publishing is a snap, while self-promoting is really where all the work is.
Well probably the most significant thing I did differently with Colonia than any other work was that I completed the entire first issue and the color covers…before I solicited it to the distributors. And so I had a full blown comic piece that I was able to send out to the so called movers and shakers in the business.
A review of Colonia was in Comic Shop News's review section, "Give and Take." That's a great column by the way there.
Yeah. I like that a lot. And…I forget who else. Some people ran it early as well. And so I think by sending a full copy before it's listed you are in a sense trying to make fans out of the people who will review it.
And sometimes people…fans will be reading a review, and they'll think "Oh, it's already out…I missed out." If it's coming, then (there's more of a sense of being able to get into the story).
You've self-published and you've worked for semi-big time publishers. Obviously there are huge differences, but can you talk about the differences between the two?
The biggest difference to me is, the amount of control over time, rather then control over editorial content. Because they do have control over editorial content, and to some people that's a big problem. But the whole issue with me was that it was more a matter of them being in control of the schedule, and the timetable, and the way it's released. For someone who's primarily self-published and banging stuff out, that's sort of excruciating.
So in a way, they are limiting your creativity, under the guise of limiting your schedule.
Yeah, by slowing down the timetable, they're pretty much undermining your creativity. You get burned out or you get tired of waiting and your creative oomph just kinda dies.
Like many cartoonists, you can't make your living solely on comics. So you have to do a job like this (working in downtown San Francisco for PG&E, Pacific Gas and Electric). Do you feel like your work suffers from not being able to devote all your time to it? I mean, from having to go from this, to then on the weekends having to work on comic books.
Yeah . . . well, I hate to always answer with "both" and then give you both answers. (Laughs). It suffers a little bit because I would like to totally immerse myself in it. I definitely get on a roll. And I enjoy being able to draw a page every day, because you stay sharp. But there's a huge benefit right now with Colonia and working for PG&E, because it's the first time I've been able to quit worrying about making a living on (comics). That's always been part of the equation.
So it's like "Colonia might not sell, and make me rich, but I'll always have this to fall back on."
Right. Right. It's just forced Colonia to be something that I do for pleasure, and I lost that sense of doing comics for pleasure, for about 3 or 4 or 5 years. Before Colonia, I was drawing to try to make a living, and not drawing because I love it, and so now… to try to give you a sense of what this is like, I really, I love just the way the pencil feels on the paper. The actual act of doing it, and I lost that for a long time.
Well that's a really interesting answer, because most people will just say, "Well, I want comics to be my living . . . I want it to be what I do," but I've never heard someone say they want it to be something they do for fun.
Yeah. And that's because I've been hurt by wanting it to be for a living too many times. It's like a big gamble, y'see…and then crash!
And then you've committed yourself to something that's really hard.
Or you go broke. (Laughs). And that get's tiresome when you're thirty-six years old.
I think we lose a lot of great cartoonists that just go broke, and just can't cut it. Do you think there's a myth associated with comics that if you publish a really great story you can become successful? Like, you can have your comic become the next Bone?
Yeah, I think that is a myth. And that goes back to that self publishing versus self promotion. If you just say to yourself, "I've got a really, really good story, I'm just gonna put it out there and people are gonna discover it," you can have a rude awakening. That's definitely true. You need a really, really good story and some good promotion. And then maybe you still might not be the next big thing.