Nicholas Gurewitch started drawing Perry Bible Fellowship while he was in college. His comics are stylistically versatile, from simple, abstract figures, to extremely detailed, occasionally including references to other artists, such as Edward Gorey and Robert Crumb, and has been syndicated in newspapers in the United States and the UK. He has won an Eisner award, a Harvey, an Ignatz and several Web Cartoonist’s Choice Awards. His most recent project is a western-themed video series called Trails of Tarnation.
I met Nicholas Gurewitch in back in December at a signing at The Dragon's Lair. In our conversation then, he showed me a gap where he's missing a tooth and speculated on what the game Settlers of Catan is about, since neither of us have ever played it. In this interview we talk about his web series, his creative process, and ponder the motives of alien visitors.
The Daily Texan:Since you visited Austin, have you tried Settlers of Catan?
Nicholas Gruewitch: No, but I maintain that it is a favourite game of mine. I can just tell by the packaging that it's wonderful. I should probably never play it, because in my head, it's this spiritual farming game with no war in it- just blissful harvesting of mana. It's probably competitive though? Someone should invent a game that is non-competitive, but requires massive amounts of concerted effort from all those involved.
DT:I'll get to comics in a little, but right off the bat, I'd like to talk about the film project, Trails of Tarnation. What was the genesis of the project?
Nicholas Gurewitch:Derek [Walborn] and Jeff [Stanin] wanted to do a cowboy project. Shoot a few videos for the web. They asked me to shoot it for them, as I've been shooting their videos since they were in middle school. I told them I wanted to implement painted backgrounds, and experiment with shooting on film. It's been hard ever since.
DT:What's the degree of collaboration and the dynamic involved in writing, shooting, directing, etc. in the production of an episode?
Gurewitch: Basically, anyone can make any decision if they throw a big enough tantrum. We all kind of do everything, though I'm putting in the majority of computer time.
DT:How long does it take to produce an episode? There's some impressive looking set construction and all props and things that have to be found or fabricated. What's the most time consuming aspect of the project, or anything in particular that stands out as something that was difficult to make?
Gurewitch: Shooting on film. Is. Hard. Everything has to be measured, lit, planned perfectly. And if you've done it perfectly, it could still come out wrong, and find yourself using a bad take.
DT:Trails of Tarnation has a defined universe and characters, versus your comic, where each one is more self contained. How do you approach film and the liberties and constraints it imposes, versus the comic?
Gurewitch: The freedom of the comic is terrific. It's easy. I value great stories way too much not to be experimenting with characters though. I want to learn how to do it.
DT:You've done some comics that were really spot on homages to the style and content of some other artists, e.g. Edward Gorey and Robert Crumb. Was there one of those, a style and world that you particularly enjoy exploring?
Gurewitch: The Edward Gorey take-off had an effect on me in that I got to thinking: Gosh, what if I did a whole book this way. I could add another Gorey book to my collection. I've actually gone on to experiment with this. I may release the book in the near or distant future.
DT:What are your thoughts on the future of comics and film, in terms of online distribution?
Gurewitch: I see art getting so post-modern, so quick -so amazing- that people will eventually grow thirsty for something totally different. I don't see a reversion to hand-puppet shows, but something kind of like that. Maybe. Eventually. Aliens landing or the discovery of psychic energy could change online distribution.
DT:Aliens would probably be a pretty big game changer in terms of entertainment. Do you think that's what they'd focus on? I mean, honestly, I never really got why the immediate assumption is that they'd blow shit up and put us all in chains. Why does everyone assume that?
Gurewitch: I wasn't thinking that they would make TV shows- just that they're presence would probably realign priorities, and change the way people think, in general. That's a interesting point though; far worse than an enslavement might be a race of television programmers looking to expand their audience for 2 and a Half Martian Men.
DT:Where do you see art going, and what do you think could be a possible reaction, save puppetry?
Gurewitch: Art will blend with science until we can no longer recognize them from each other. They really aren't that different to begin with. They're both about pattern detection and disruption, and feature controlled experiments.
DT: A couple months ago, you put up a comic strip titled "Carolyn", an early version of which is in the 2006 Dark Horse Perry Bible Fellowship Almanack collection. How often do you find ideas gestating for a while?
Gurewitch: All ideas gestate to some degree. Even if it takes you 4.2 seconds to write or voice them, the structuring of an idea or dynamic is something that comes from your previous work and thoughts, even if it's not obvious. On a much more literal answer to your question, yeah, I have sketch-pads full of ideas. If I were more eccentric than I am, I would call them "idea gardens". Ideas are always growing and changing. Sometimes -often- for the better.
DT:An idea garden sounds like an either extremely pleasant, or unbelievably terrifying place to be. Would you want to live in one?
Gurewitch:I already do. It comes with a price.
DT:What does it look like?
Gurewitch: Messy. And thorn-ridden.
DT:Your comics are often extremely, delicately detailed, what's the longest you've spent working on a strip?
Gurewitch:I did a crap-load of post-production colouring on a dying computer for "Commander Crisp". Every click was several minutes of my time, and I think I lost an entire week of my life on scanning and coloring adjustment- to say nothing of the weeks I spent painting it. Probably went overboard on it.
DT:The annotated comics in the back of your book are fascinating. How do you judge when something is "too much", or doesn't quite work tonally?
Gurewitch:Same as any artistic endeavor. You just gotta feel it. Or, if you don't trust yourself -I never do- notice whether or not people laugh at it. If they're bored, I will often adjust the work until they're pleased.
DT:Since we're talking about ideas, what makes you initially fall in love with an idea enough to pursue it?
Gurewitch:Tough to say, but feelings of goodness and excitement probably have something to do with it.
DT:Are there any comics you look back on, and you can't recall the impetus behind it?
DT:Any in particular?
Gurewitch:I never published them in any form. Mostly weird scraps of paper that were written in the middle of the night 10 years ago.
DT:Are there any sources or outlets you look at when you feel stuck on an idea or theme you want to explore, or feel unsure directionally?
Gurewitch:I remind myself what I want, and re-imagine what I'm doing as steps which may lead to what I want. That might be bullshit. I think a lot of the times I exit a depressed state randomly- encountering something beautiful or strange, or unexpected.
DT: A while back, you did some animated work (Elite Fleet, Beach Rumble, etc.). How did that come about, and what was the experience like for you?
Gurewitch:It was hard because the BBC gave us a tiny amount of money to make 30 second jokes. I think the idea was that each movie start with a character's butt already on fire or something, but Jordan and Evan and I wanted to give some more solid treatment to some ideas we've had. I ended up paying animators out of my own pocket to get a couple of them made properly.
DT:You started out drawing Perry Bible Fellowship in college, and it's been syndicated in papers, have there ever been times where the themes you want to explore got you in trouble? Anything that your publishers objected to, or that you had to fight to get in?
Gurewitch:Not a whole lot of honourable stories on this front. If a client doesn't like something, I feel they have the right not to print it. I don't need to put nipples or dicks into jokes. It's not necessary. In the long run, I feel artists actually owe much to producers and clients who impose limitations on them. If I'm in a good mood, I'm grateful when it happens. It's happened a few times.
DT:I read a few years ago that you'd been involved with developing something for television. How did that go and do you have any other potential work offers or projects you might be involved with in the future?
Gurewitch:[I’m] going to LA soon for yet another meeting for a cartoon program that's been in development for a while. There's also a sketch-comedy show that's being considered. Apparently it's not a great climate right now for sketch comedy, but maybe that will change in the future.
DT:Would you be acting in that? I really enjoy your character on Trails of Tarnation.
Gurewitch:Hadn't planned on it. Only if somebody else can't do something.
DT:How much, speaking thematically, does your personal experience and mood at a given point affect your output?
Gurewitch:A lot. If I'm hungry, I can't work. If I'm lonely, I can't work. However, once a piece of art is working, I will go without food and love for days because then the art becomes my food. It becomes my love.
DT:On that, are there any comics that you've done that even if subtly, are particularly autobiographical?
Gurewitch:I think most if not all of them tell the story of disappointment and/or wonder- two themes which have dominated my entire life since I was 0.
DT:I saw you at a signing/panel thing in Austin a couple months ago. Some of the cartoonists seemed to have a lot of camaraderie. How's your relationship generally, with other people in that medium?
Gurewitch: I wanted Jeph Jacques to like me when I was in Austin. I told myself: I want to have an interesting conversation with this guy. It just never happened. But I blame myself. I'm a weird mix of rudely outgoing and anxiously shy.
DT:What's the strangest thing anyone's ever brought you at a convention?
Gurewitch:Umm, I haven't done a ton of conventions. A really cute girl gave me her phone number once. I just put it in my pocket. Only when I got home from Portland did I realize she probably liked me. Idiot.
DT:Your last book collection had a forward by Diablo Cody. Did she approach you, or was it something with the publishers came to you with? Any other high profile fans you know of?
Gurewitch:Obama told me he was a fan in a dream of mine. Actually, he said he was a "Sweeto" fan -referencing the original book that Dark Horse did of mine, which had to be taken off the shelves. I guessed Diablo's e-mail address after I got home from "Juno", and she wrote back, saying she liked the comic.
DT:Not necessarily about work, but in general, what are you looking forward to right now?
Gurewitch:I find myself unable to answer this question in an interesting way. I find myself wanting to say "I am excited for the future", but that reeks of generality, and is misleading. I yearn more for the past. Oh, I know:
I am excited to soon solve some issues I have with the 4th dimension. I am excited to make a humongous scientific discovery that changes the way I live my life, and then changes the way everyone else lives theirs.
DT:If you could say something to a younger version of yourself, say, when you were a teenager, what would you say?
Gurewitch:I feel like I'm still waiting for an older version of myself to come grab ME by the shoulder and give me some advice. Perhaps I would say: "Stop waiting!"
DT: If you had the option of getting some sort of cybernetic attachment, would you, and what would it be?
Gurewitch:Perhaps some kind of eye-piece that would allow me to see heart-rates of other people.
DT:If you could have any super power, what would it be?
Gurewitch: To retract the in-born psychic limitations which diminish my actual super powers.
You can read Perry Bible Fellowship at pbfcomics.com and watch Trails of Tarnation at trailsoftarnation.com