The Alex Cahill Interview

Jeff Nicholson, unsung superstar of small press comics and stalwart self-publisher for 20+ years, allowed me to interview him October of 2004. The interview, started merely as a project for school, bloomed unexpectedly into a thorough and honest explanation both of the highlights and heartbreaks of independent comics-making. If you're interested in learning more about Jeff's work--and you ought to be--you can find whatever you want at his own site, (note: this site was deactivated in 2007).

Alex Cahill: What does success mean for you as a comics-maker? Do you consider yourself successful?

Jeff Nicholson: Great question, which needs a long answer. It keeps changing. As the comics market evolves, and I age, my measure of success evolves as well. In the beginning, I wanted my book to be racked along side the underground comics I admired. A few years later, my goal was to sell 5,000 copies so I could actually make a living off of it. I actually achieved that one, but it slowly slipped away as the market dwindled. Then my measure of success became to only work on projects where I was offered a page rate. That worked for a while, but it was still a tenuous living, so I still seemed be using a living wage to define whether I was good enough, or if the market was being good enough to me for me to participate. After enough years of it not being good enough to me, I realized I was still born to make comics and couldn't stop. This was when I started Colonia, and I wanted my success to be my ability to out-perform myself, and stop worrying about the money as a barometer of acceptance.

Now I consider myself successful simply out of tenacity and the ability to adapt, and to not let my creative side get crushed. Things like low sales still affect me emotionally, because those are old wounds, but not intellectually. I know it's not my fault that the thing I was born to do offers very, very few people a living wage. I still hold a few things out there as a mark of success, like an Eisner award, or being an invited guest by Comiccon International, or even being courted by a movie studio.

There are a lot of storytelling media out there, some more accessible and respected than others. Why do you work in the medium of comics?

Pure attraction, and not an intellectual decision. When I was younger I had my hands in a lot of different media. I painted. I wrote and played music and was in some bands. I did amateur animation, claymation, voice acting, short films, prose writing, and so on. At some point I decided I had to be a master at one of these things, and I couldn't let comics go, so I had to let everything else go. The only one I sometimes wonder "what if?" is the voice acting. I was pretty good at multiple distinct voices, and some day I'll put all my old audio on the web to amuse people.

In what ways is a Jeff Nicholson comic different from all the other comics out there?

There is a certain kind of surreal or off-the-wall mark on all my different series that I hope unifies them and makes them stand out.

A long time ago I read an interview with Evan Dorkin in which he said he spent the first part of his career as a comics-maker thinking of himself as an artist who writes, because he started drawing before he ever wrote. Later, after an accident that left him temporarily unable to draw, he realized he was truly a writer who draws. That always struck me as a crucial distinction for a solo comics-maker to make, even though he has to be both. Which would you say you're more of-artist or writer? And why?

This is a tough one. I've been drawing way longer than writing, and drawing came naturally and the writing was learned. This seems like an obvious artist who writes, but the thing that drives it all is the ideas, or the plot. The characters I want to create and the worlds I want to build and the situations that I want to watch and laugh at. The world building is more of a compulsion to me than the picture making. I'm like a plotter that draws and then writes the dialogue.

A lot of comics-makers get so wrapped up in their own work that other comics don't really register on their radar anymore; they'll stop reading new works and stop keeping up with what's going on in comics, sometimes out of a lack of time, sometimes out of a lack of desire. To what degree is this the case for you, if at all, and why?

100%, I have to admit. Before starting Colonia I made a decision to tune everything out, and sold off all my comics and graphic novels. This was partly to not be influenced by anything, and partly to stop coveting the "success" of other artist who may or may not have been making a living from it. I did re-purchase Bone and Love & Rockets, after deciding I wanted those influences, but I just lost the habit. Now I get a lot of free comics from younger artists who give me their books at conventions, so the work I'm exposed to is pretty fresh and enthusiastic, and I like that exposure.

How dead (or how alive, if you prefer) is comics, and how does comics' condition affect your own work?

Low sales or failed expectations still affect the old wounds. I usually need a time out after pouring so much of myself into an issue, and then looking at the pitiful purchase orders. But I don't take it personally because a lot of good artists have left the field for the same reason, and here I still am, and when people recognize that and sometimes even thank me for it at conventions, I feel really great about it. I guess the devoted fans make up for the lack of volume.

Knowing what you know now and having suffered the difficulties you have, 2004 finds you still making comics and still self-publishing them. How close have you come to leaving it all behind, and what, after 20+ years, keeps you going?

I think I've covered this in my previous answers, except to mention that I did actually "quit forever" once. I think it was about 1996. I threw away all of my childhood art and most of my comics original art. Then I went into a pretty serious depression and the compulsion to start doing Colonia, coupled with a good day job, pretty much pulled me out of that. Staying creative pretty much keeps me sane, but I keep it a hobby so trying to make a living from it doesn't drive me insane.

What's the biggest problem, either isolated incident or consistent frustration, that you've run into as a self-publisher?

The potential poor attitude of printers. My communications degree included Graphic Design and some Industrial Technology, but when printers screw up they refuse to communicate with me properly, assuming I don't know what I'm doing or what they're doing. Communication should be number one with your printer, yet some act like you're bothering them even though you are their customer. It's a naturally defensive industry, because if they "admit" they made a mistake, they could be accountable for a reprint. It's never their fault, even if all you want to do is clarify how something went wrong to avoid it happening again. I'm a pretty prolific guy, and have printed over 100,000 copies of all my individual titles, yet they make the mistake of treating me like a novice doing his first book. Preney Print, Morgan Printing and Brenner have all lost my business over this.

You have a punk kid friend who wants more than anything to self-publish a book and sustain himself only with money made in comics. What advice or warning do you have for this kid?

Owch. It stopped being realistic to me long ago. All my role models faded away. In the 70's it seemed like you could be a Jack Kirby and make wild and expressive comics for DC, if you were only good enough. Or underground comics if you were more scruffy around the edges. In the 80's you had Dave Sim to keep you going, even though no one else could repeat his success. In the 90's Jeff Smith surprised everyone, but I still think his jumping in right at the Image Comics feeding frenzy bubble had a lot to do with his success, and again, no one's been able to repeat it. Linda Medley seemed very likely to, but she wound up with the same track record as myself. My advice is never lose that enthusiasm and hope that you could somehow be that next surprise, but you've got to leave a place in your soul that is prepared for some painfully low return on your creative investment.

Does Diamond and the Previews distribution monopoly pose any real problem or threat to the self-publisher? Do you use Cold Cut or any other alternative distributors as well as Diamond?

I use Cold Cut and FM International. The two of them combined make up about 10% of initial purchase orders. In the 80's there were about 15 distributors, so it's easier to deal with now and less risky. When small time distributors were coming and going, there were fair odds one or two would go bankrupt per year, leaving you unpaid.

Strange question now: how closely do you think comics and movies are related? And in your opinion how does comics distinguish itself from movies as a storytelling medium, if at all?

To me it's in the pacing and the pausing. You can dwell on something in comics, even an action sequence, and have part of the control over the pacing. With film the director and editor have total control over the pace.

Are there some things you consistently notice in other comics-makers' work that bother you? If so, what are they?

I can't say that I do.

Explain your method for comics-making. How does your work go from idea to finished page, and is your process different depending on your project?

First the plot, which usually just comes and gets me when I least expect it. I used to start taking notes right away, but now I just let it roll around in my head, sometimes for as long as a year (I'm always several years ahead on plots), until it's time to write out the full script. I don't worry about pages or panels when I write the script, which is mostly dialogue. Peculiar visual scenes are still mainly in memory. Then I thumbnail out the whole thing on 8 1/2 X 11 paper, while writing the page breaks and panel breaks onto the printed script. After that I lay out the bristol boards with a t-square, blue pencil, and special cheat sheets that have 1/2, 1/3 and 1/4 panel breaks marked off. I park a laptop by my drawing board and convert the script to a comics lettering font and physically measure the width of the balloons against the tab of the text and wrap each piece of dialogue. As for the depth of the balloons, I also have cheat sheets with ticks for 2, 3, 4 etc. lines of lettering. I don't draw at this stage unless to gesture where some figures are to orient the balloons. Afterwards I print out the formatted text and light table each page, tracing the balloon around each piece of dialogue. I do this elaborate lettering process so I don't draw anything that's going to be covered up by a balloon, which is a serious waste of time. This way, all the balloons are exact before the pencilling starts.

Next I blue pencil, where I am being very free, yet virtually complete, then I pencil pencil, where I'm being very tight, then I ink with a brush. I'm essentially drawing everything three times, but I can't start tight and I can't jump from blue pencil to ink. Some artists can, and I wish I could to save time, but that's just my way. After erasing and filling in the blacks, I spray mount my printed lettering, slice it up and place it with a t-square. Then I scan it into Photoshop, and drop each page into a Pagemaker template for the whole issue.

Technically I could add the lettering after scanning, but I like the lettering on the boards for aesthetic reasons, and/or for selling the original art.

Tell me what materials you usually work with.

Plate finish bristol board, Sanford Verithin non-photo blue pencil, Eastman No. 3 pencil, Cali 001 black india ink, Windsor-Newton Series 7 #2 brush, occasionally a Rapidiograph pen for hatching grey tones, Sharpie for fills, and Photoshop for cover coloring.

Do you keep a sketchbook or a journal of any kind?

I keep a sketchbook, but it's mainly for developing new characters.

How much drawing do you do that isn't directly comics-related?

NONE! I used to do freelance art, and let co-workers or relatives talk me into drawing crap for them. Around 1989 I said no for the first time, and it's been easy ever since. I would rather clean someone's bathroom than draw something I don't want to draw for them.

I love all your work, and I'm thoroughly enjoying Colonia. I have to admit, though, I'm a little obsessed with Through the Habitrails. I think it's one of the most understated works in comics history. All of your works have at least a hint of the autobiographical (says me), but Habitrails is peculiar in that it's simultaneously the most autobiographical and the work in which the line between reality and fiction is most playfully blurred. Do you see yourself making any material in a similar vein in the future? (I mean work of similar narrative style, similar visual approach, not necessarily dark auto-bio.)

No. I actually plotted and wrote up a proposal for a sequel to Habitrails called "Unable to Forward." It's pretty depressing. I shopped it around to publishers during my Fat Elvis period of 1996. Fortunately no one bit, because it would just be too draining to draw the thing.

Colonia's charm seems to be born of your conflicting desires for its mood and context: it's historical, counter-historical and fantastic-all at the same time. How did your initial ideas for the book change as you researched and developed?

Most of it has been totally organic and subconscious. The stories just sort of happen to me. The only thing that really changed since coming up with it is that it didn't have Jack, and the two uncles were Roy and Wilbur from Father & Son. I was describing it to Linda Medley and she thought it needed a focal character that you see this world through, even if that character is plain or passive. I agreed and came up with Jack as a sort of modern day Will Robinson. Also, after sending the first issue to Todd Klein, to see if he was interested in lettering it, he pointed out some faults in the real-world-meets-fantasy "rules," and he was right and I re-wrote and even re-drew some sequences. Since then the characters just write themselves.

Now that you've been working on Colonia for a while-five years or so, I believe-and you've had a chance to see how the story is unfolding, I'm curious as to how long you see it running. Do you have a goal in mind for an issue-count or for an ultimate story? How does your professional life help out or interfere with your goals for Colonia?

My day job has basically saved Colonia by keeping me from burning out. Slow but sure is better than quitting. I have two more arcs in mind, which might be about the size of the first two arcs, which would put me out to about 22 issues. Beyond that, I don't know if it will end or more arc ideas will come along and find me.

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