chris ware & archer prewitt
comic artists chris ware (acme novelty library) and archer prewitt (sof’boy) are two fantastically talented individuals. ware has produced 15 volumes of comics with fantagraphics depicting the ironic, sad, and hilarious tales of characters such as jimmy corrigan, the smartest kid on earth and quimby the mouse. he also published a jimmy corrigan graphic novel that won tons of high grades and awards. his house is decorated with antiques and collections, the newest addition to which was what must have been the first-ever viewmaster (a wooden box with a brass crank that displays three-dimensional family photos from another century).
prewitt has published both volumes of the resilient sof’boy’s outlandish adventures, in mini-comic version, himself (see drawnandquarterly.com). he, too, has a house brimming with odd collectibles. he is a member of the musical group the sea and cake, was in the now-defunct coctails, and has released three solo albums (ware sometimes plays piano on his albums). anyone who ever saw the coctails’ merch display or sof’boys cloth dolls and rubber figurines would agree that mr. prewitt’s attention to detail should be commended. archer says the new/old third issue of sof’ boy is coming out this fall/early winter, he’s finishing up a cover for dump, a new sea & cake is out jan. 20, and he’s sketching ideas for a children’s book.
this interview was conducted over plates of starchy polish food at the busy bee restaurant — located at the corner of damen and milwaukee, under the el tracks in chicago. interview by gail o’hara and dawn sutter (this interview originally appeared in moxie, dawn’s print zine)
chickfactor.com: what were your favorite books and comics when you were children?
archer prewitt: I really liked this book called the clambake mutiny, which is about lobsters that were trapped. sort of a family thing. the youngest lobster got together with his grandfather and all these other lobsters and when they were taken to a beach dinner to be eaten, they revolted and pinched all the people and got away. it was done by that one french illustrator; he did that one about the goose. do you know him?
chris ware: uh-huh. who did madeleine?
archer: that’s great stuff.
chris: that’s a scary book. that terrified me. all those weird nurses and the ceilings…
archer: the stormy nights and barren trees…
archer: and the way that when she runs up the stairs, she’s this elongated ghost. I liked these books called the famous five and anything with illustrations by garth williams, stuart little, charlotte’s web.
cf.com: what about you, chris?
archer: and another thing I liked….
chris: my favorite book was frog and toad are friends.
archer: oh yeah, me too.
chris: that book scared the hell out of me. there’s this one part where one of them is having a dream. what is it, frog is really friendly and toad just wants to sleep and never do anything?
archer: no, it’s the other way around.
chris: anyway, one of them has a dream about playing piano for the other guy.
archer: no, you’re right.
chris: I can’t remember. anyway, the more he plays piano in this big auditorium, the smaller and smaller his friend gets until he just disappears and he’s all alone in this big auditorium. it used to make me cry; it was so horrific. they’re great books though. the only reason they’re friends is because they happen to live next to each other; but they don’t really like each other. but it’s never really explicitly stated. it has this sort of overriding sadness to it.
archer: mcelligot’s pool by dr. seuss.
chris: I never read that one.
archer: it’s really early. and there are all these murky moody watercolor paintings. not linear-filled in with color-but dimensional and freaky. all these wild fish and big swoopy underwater currents.
cf.com: when did you first start reading comics?
chris: I remember looking at comics before I read them. it was mostly superhero stuff. I hated funny animal things. but I much preferred watching television. when I discovered that batman was on television, that pretty much eliminated any want to read them. I still wanted to learn how to draw though. I don’t know how old I was. I don’t know, five or six.
cf.com: was batman your favorite tv show?
chris: yeah, I wanted to be a superhero. I was sure that all I had to do was either study really hard or involve myself in some sort of industrial accident and then I would acquire superhero powers. I firmly thought that something like that was going to happen to me or that I would build up or something. it never did.
cf.com: what kind of superhero would you have been?
chris: I don’t know. the kind that meets girls.
cf.com: you didn’t have that planned out?
chris: no, I didn’t care. meanwhile, all my friends started building up naturally, getting muscles and big chests. I was still scrawny. I had all these fantasies of patrolling the neighborhood at night. of course none of them ever materialized.
archer: I did that, too.
chris: did you actually do it though?
archer: my brother and I were lion and pantherboy. we had utility belts that had all this stuff hanging off of them, flashlights being the main thing (to be operated at night), little maps of the neighborhood. we did lots of spying. I was really happy when I got my first microcassette recorder. my brother and I would go on these long three-mile treks to go buy comic books down this path that went up this creek. we’d go far too often. there was no turn-around in comics at this blue bonnet market and yet we’d still go there. i’d get the one I was half-heartedly thinking about. we did that pretty early. we loved our comics so much we worked on building a shelf for them. we painted it and on the bottom it said “brandt and archer, pals forever.”
chris: that’s sad.
archer: well, I won’t get into that.
cf.com: both of you have several collections. what is your favorite object that you collect? what’s your most prized possession?
chris: I don’t know. that’s sort of gross. if I admitted to that, I would be admitting to some sort of frailty as a human being. [character voice] “I love my banjo-lin!” yeah, right.
cf.com: do you play the banjo?
chris: yeah, I’ve been teaching myself; but I don’t know that “play” is actually the verb you would want to employ. I don’t know. i’m not deliberately trying to be evasive, but to answer would be painful. probably my piano, actually, though it’s not a collectible thing.
archer: probably my red pig bank.
chris: I could give you a list of things, but to focus in would be like choosing which cat you like best.
cf.com: have you ever thought about making toys of your comic characters? if you could make one what would it be?
chris: I’ve had some ideas recently, but actually I used to make stuff like that more. now I don’t have the facilities. I’m not as resourceful as archer, who has turned his kitchen into a rubber factory.
cf.com: but if you could have any promotional item without having to actually think about the production?
chris: well, recently I wanted to make a jimmy corrigan metal doll. there was a yellow kid doll made at the turn of the century or a little bit before. it was made out of lead. it had lead-cast head, lead-cast hands and lead-cast feet, and then this pathetic wire armature body and this cheap muslin robe. so I wanted to make this jimmy corrigan old man doll in a hospital robe that would be all beat up and it would come in a box with a picture of him as a little kid on it. I’m planning on making it, but I don’t want to cast lead in my kitchen. other things i’ve made i’ve only made a few editions of. mostly I make them for myself. I do the cut-outs in the comic books.
archer: I think those [cut-outs] are really more interesting, because they are more interactive. they require people to go out and make xeroxes, if they don’t want to destroy the comic book.
chris: or buy another one.
cf.com: you make them first and then reproduce them?
chris: no, I actually never build them. with the exception of the one in the third issue, I never built a prototype. I just say, “I hope it works!”
cf.com: has anyone ever written you and said they didn’t work?
chris: no, actually, they all seem to work. I never thought anyone would actually do it. there were some guys in amsterdam who blew up the robot to 7ft. high and built it and all the furniture, too.
archer: and they had installed it when you got there?
chris: yeah, it almost made me cry. i’m not sure if I was crying because it was so nice or because it seemed like such a sad thing to do, to waste so much time.
archer: i’d probably go the ceramic route at this point. sof’ boy mugs and salt and pepper shakers.
cf.com: what about a sof’ boy blimp floating in the sky? we’re talking fantasy here.
archer: i’d probably still keep it small scale.
chris: a jet airplane.
archer: I think a vinyl bank about ten inches high would be really great.
cf.com: if you could design a package for a product, what product would you chose?
archer: it would be fun to do chewing gum-each individual stick. I did that when I was a kid. I did vampire chewing gum. I had hand drawn labels. gave them to my friends. around halloween I got into this mind-set. actually, I was pretty monstrous all year ’round. my mom was kinda worried about me.
chris: that was in the ’70s. everyone was into monsters.
archer: but I used to walk around…my mom had this black wool overcoat and i’d wear it in the summertime like I was a vampire. it had a big collar. i’d make aluminum foil claws and put blood on my teeth.
chris: i’ve seen you do that.
archer: that’s just like you used to run around in a cape, in a superman outfit.
chris: yeah. I once tried to make a batman mask out of a tube sock and masking tape. I put the tube sock over my head, cut the holes out and then wrapped my head in masking tape to try and firm it up. then I tried to color it with magic marker.
cf.com: did you think it looked great?
chris: no, I knew it…it was very disappointing to me. if it’s possible for a nine-year-old to feel complete and utter debilitating rejection after some venture, that’s how I felt.
archer: you should have seen my planet of the apes mask. it looked like I had put a mudpie on my face. I made it out of that liquid rubber stuff. I made a papier mâché mold that was basically flat and it was that pulpy stuff, so when I tried to pull the rubber out, it had all that stuff on it. it looked like a cowpie. I just put a rubber band around it. I wore it to this halloween party. they thought I was a burn victim.
chris: that’s like those appalachian fiddles. these guys in appalachia, they carve a fiddle, even though they’ve never actually seen one. they’ve seen pictures of them or something, so they have no dimensionality to them. they seem completely flat. it’s the shape of a fiddle, but there are no bends in the neck. I don’t know how they play it. it’s sad, really, to look at. it looks like it’s been run over by a car.
chris: men’s pajamas. rather than doing t-shirts, men’s pajamas with little rocket ships all over them.
archer: yeah, i’ve always wanted to do fabric. I always wanted to do a fall pattern with lots of leaves.
chris: that’d be nice.
cf.com: is there a household product or food product that you really stand behind, one that you’d be proud to design a box for?
archer: a lot of things.
cf.com: is there one that you think is really well designed?
archer: I like the ritz cracker box a lot. I bought a box to do an illustration.
chris: I think detergent boxes are always kinda striking. they have all those fluorescent names that explode.
archer: yeah, surf, tide…
chris: I can’t really think of anything right off hand. I feel like i’m being miserably disappointing.
archer: wrigley’s spearmint gum is nice. juicy fruit. those are beautiful.
chris: yeah. they’re still hand-lettered, I think. something like cans of tomatoes, the cheap italian brands. they still hand-separate the drawings. of course that doesn’t answer your question, those are just things I sort of like.
archer: all those airbrushed looking things, a dark blue background and a big tomato sitting there. or when you go to korean and vietnamese places, they have really crazy hand-separated pictures of leeks or little doves flying around…
chris: it’s better than the art museum, eh? I actually remember thinking about something…
archer: marshmallow fluff?
chris: no, 409 is a good thing! I mean, it really works. it’s the only thing that gets ink off your hands.
archer: I always liked mr. bubble when I was a kid. but now I don’t know if I like him so much.
chris: I always liked pink panther cereal when I was a kid. it was pink frosted flakes, essentially. it turned your milk this shocking pink color. it was terrible. and all of the prizes came in pink.
cf.com: describe your relationship with your principal comic character. are you like/not like them?
archer: actually, mark greenberg [coctails] inspired sof’ boy.
archer: and my cat, minew.
chris: oh wow, I never thought of that before, but it makes sense.
archer: I kind of realized it, when I was living with mark. I was drawing this coctails comic book, which never came out; when I’d draw mark, he always looked like sof’boy. but sof’ boy’s probably a lot of me, too. or how i’d hope to be, happy-go-lucky.
cf.com: does sof’ boy receive favoritism over other comic book characters?
archer: I don’t really have many to speak of. everybody seems to like funny bunny more than sof’ boy. I think that’s because he’s more unpredictable than sof’ boy. sof’ boy’s very predictable.
chris: it’s the difference between a character doing things and having things done to him.
archer: probably. actually, women like funny bunny more. maybe that’s because men don’t like to divulge their opinions…. what about you chris, are you jimmy corrigan?
chris: uh, yeah, that’s what I am. I mean, that’s the one question that I never can answer. and actually, the whole idea of even saying the name of my characters or even speaking of my characters, as if I own them, makes me feel gross. someone will ask me, “oh, so what strip do you do?” and i’ll say (sheepishly) “jimmy corrigan, smartest kid on earth.” it’s just that you can’t say it. I don’t know. I have really no affection for them at all. maybe some of the older characters, but they pretty much represented my bad relationships that I was involved with at the time. when those parts of my life pass by, then I have no real urge to draw those characters anymore. I have a certain sympathy for a character that’s in the third issue, but I don’t sit around and talk to him or anything. it’s difficult to say where empathy is in a comic strip, or how to create a sense of empathy for a character. sometimes if you show too much, then you sort of ruin the possibilities.
archer: yeah, I like the use of profiles, and not showing a face that you use in your comics so there are more possibilities of who this mystery woman might be or what jimmy’s mom might look like. just seeing hands suggesting things, rather than laying it all out.
chris: partly that’s because I have a hard time drawing people’s faces.
archer: I think it’s very well considered. I always have people laying it all out, nutty faces. there are no real story lines, just nutty expressions.
chris: you get into some pretty deep stuff though; you just take a different route. part of the problem with comics is that they’re an innately vulgar medium. they’re perfect for telling jokes, but if you try to do anything a little more subtle, the vulgarism ruins any subtlety you might have. which is one of the reasons why I don’t show people’s faces sometimes, just to suggest things. for the same reason, if you’re reading a book, the sum toll of your entire life experience goes into the understanding of reading a paragraph. you fill in the blanks. that’s what good writing is. you don’t want to show to much and ruin the possibilities.
archer: I think your choice of colors tones down the vulgarity of it.
chris: i’ve had serious problems with that lately. I was looking at old issues saying,”oh my god. these are terrible.”
cf.com: how is color important?
chris: it’s pretty important. like peter bagge’s stuff has been colored by a number of different people recently-mary woodring, jim woodring’s wife. he did one issue, his wife is doing it now, but if [peter bagge’s] colors get too subtle or complicated, it ruins his artwork; because it’s such in-your-face ugly looking stuff. if the colors are nice, it just doesn’t work. it comes out like someone else has filmed it. I think color can be the most important element that can go with the comics. it’s sort of hard, but as far as directing the eye, it’s the main thing you can use after black and white. I don’t know what i’m talking about.
archer: to me, because of the colors you use, [acme…] feels like it’s somewhere between a film and a novel. because you know that you’re having a one on one experience with this art form, and in that way it’s like a book, and the stories, too, but the colors feel like a good film.
chris: really? that’s nice. every time I try to use punchy colors like you do, I can’t make it work at all. I just start subduing them more and more, adding gross grays to them.
if you animated one of your comic strips, which would it be? what kind of music would you set it to?
archer: chris wrote the sof’ boy song.
chris: awww, you haven’t even heard the whole thing.
archer: when he plays it on his little bell piano, it’s completely hilarious. breakneck speed ragtime. there was quite a while where I wanted to do an animated short. I remember being blown away by tom terrific and gumby when I was a kid and just how wild that stuff is. i’d like to do a cartoon that felt like that, one that didn’t feel like your average saturday morning tripe. but I wouldn’t want it to fall into the adult category either.
chris: I thought your idea of having a little kid dressed up like sof’ boy…
archer: looking for the sasquatch, running all around the city. I was actually thinking of doing several different kinds of animation, discounting computer animation all together. fairly beat up gumby style clay-mation, real people’s mouths moving…
chris: i’ve only really wanted to do one. maybe two. a few years ago I wanted to do a mouse one. I had very specific music in mind.
cf.com: what was the music?
chris: it was a recording of “the charleston” by the quintet of the high club of france. it just, for some reason, suggested a story to me. it would be really simple white on black. white lines on black background. i’ve had ideas about doing a longer live action film suggested by music. there’s this great song by gene austin that fats waller played piano on called, “I’ve got a feeling I’ve fallen.” it’d be really great, but I don’t want to get into that. that’s the thing that I miss in comics. you can’t suggest a specific piece of music. you can have a mood, but there are times where I really would like to get a song in there. but then again, that’s so hollywood-y. I’ve tried to suggest that feel with the way that I draw. you do the same thing with yours.
archer: mine’s more like ’60s psychedelic. no, more like hardcore rap. even when I was a kid I tried my hand at animation. for me there’s not a more potent art form then someone manipulating puppets or images to music. it’s always engaging, unless it’s saturday morning cartoons.
chris: the thing I hate about it is that to see it on a screen or on a tv you have to encode it. that’s the thing I like about comics. even 60 years from now, as long as the paper survives, i’ll be able to get them in a used bookstore and I won’t have to figure out what sort of database to plug it into or what sort of film projector or what kind of video cassette player I need. all this excitement about transferring things to digital formats. [in a character voice] “I put my entire phone directory on a database!” and then you scoot your chair back and unplug the thing, “oooh no! my friends, they’re all gone!” it seems so stupid.
cf.com: do you use computers for anything?
chris: yeah, I use them for all the typesetting in the comics.
archer: do you have a computer?
chris: no, I use the ones at the newspaper. I would never buy one, especially right now. as soon as you get it home, it’s obsolete and you’ve just blown $3500. what’s the point? besides, it’s the ultimate time waster. it’s the way for companies to come into your home and a way for you to keep shoving money down the toilet. it’s worse than a car. “you mean, I can get pictures of topless girls? and no one will know that i’m doing it?” it’s the ultimate. I’d never get anything done if I had one. it’s worse than television. it’s evil.
archer: the only thing i’d get one for, would be to color the comic. of course, i’d be so anal about it that that process would take longer than anything else. I’d be saying things like, “oh I can airbrush the coke bottle?”
chris: they always look so bad, those computer fades.
archer: I know. unfortunately, I had some done before.
chris: all the colors on my stuff are keyed in on a computer, but I do color drawings to tell the person who’s keying it in on the computer what tints to make up of each color. it’s mathematical, essentially. I like the dead cold look that you get from that flat, graphic look. I don’t want it to look like i’ve drawn it at all. I want it to look killed on the page.
cf.com: is there any comic character that you wish you’d invented?
chris: no, because I know if i’d done it, then I wouldn’t like it. I can’t take any pleasure in my own stuff. the only pleasure I get, is getting it finished.
cf.com: then what’s your favorite comic that someone else has done?
chris: god, I can’t answer that question.
cf.com: do you get any weird fan mail?
chris: I do.
cf.com: are the letters that you publish in acme real?
chris: yeah. for some reason this seems to be a subject of disbelief for me. but they really are. i’ve never published a fake letter. maybe it’s the way I edit them. the answers are fake.
archer: I can’t think of a single comic book character that I would just love.
chris: I can’t imagine drawing anyone else’s anyway. occasionally the opportunity will pop up for a cartoonist to draw “popeye” or something. there’s this guy bobby london who’s this old underground cartoonist who did draw “popeye” for the syndicate. and just recently there were auditioning a bunch of people to draw “nancy.” taz auditioned and ivan brunetti and a guy named bob sikoryak and none of them got the job, but who would want the job? I would be swallowing the muzzle of a gun every day. oh my god! why would you want to draw “nancy” for the rest of your life?
archer: is the money good in that?
chris: who cares? how could you even enjoy it? you’d just have to buy booze and stuff.
archer: booze and smack and ink.
chris: there are some horrible stories about old cartoonists. there was this cartoonist, I don’t remember his name…he was just an alcoholic. apparently, he had at least one or two heart attacks while he was working, and he kept a gun in his drawer along with a bottle of scotch. he peed into cups and put them behind his tv set. it’s a terrible life. apparently his wife was bringing him his lunch one day and as she was walking down the stairs, she fell and died. it’s only marginally better now for cartoonists. you have to like sitting at home alone a lot.
archer: it’s becoming more like that for me now that i’ve decided to do this. whereas before, I would say, “oh, i’ve got to sit down and do this music first.” when I paint, it’s the most angry I get. I curse and destroy pages. it’s really not fun. and you think, the whole world outside is having normal jobs and having happy normal relationships for the most part.
chris: you start to long for a job you don’t really care about. one where you could just come home and watch tv and feel satisfied. you’re re-evaluating your personality with every mark you make.
cf.com: thanks, guys.