Better late than never, I've got an excellent artist interview for February, featuring the work and wisdom of comic book artist and Orange County, CA resident Jack Bertram. I've been following Jack's blog Illustrated Jack for a couple of years now, and have always enjoyed his drawings, sketches, comics, ramblings and humor. Enjoy!
1. Q: What got you interested in doing comics?
A: I was walking along one fine day, suddenly, a lightning bolt struck from the sky, hitting me on the hand. From that day forward I was imbued with the power to draw comics. It just seemed like the natural thing to do after that. The real facts are that it happened in stages. I had an interest in drawing and when I discovered comics the two interests took to each other. I found that the drawing that I wanted to do most was comics. As a young child I was always interested in illustrations, comic strips and paintings, basically all kinds of art. It took me a while to get to comic books. I had read a few comics as a kid, but wasn’t a collector or a huge fan until I was about 13 when a friend of mine introduced me to collecting comics. I watched the Superman TV series when I was a kid and then later the Batman TV series. During that Batman craze I started buying paperback collections of Batman comics. They were small pocketbook size, black and white reprints of Batman comics. My friend saw me reading these books and proceeded to tell me about real comics. He filled me in on the Golden Age of comics, EC comics and lent me his early Fantastic Four and Spider-Man comics. Anyway, that was it. I was hooked.
2. Q: Who were some of your influences growing up?
A: My parents helped influence my art because they encouraged me to do it and didn’t hold me back. My mom had an interest in art herself and lent me her Jon Gnagy art instruction books. When I was in junior high school my dad bought me a drawing table that I still use today. I love that drawing table. There are so many artists that influenced me, from all types of art. Before I was into comics I remember looking at illustrations in books by artist like Gibson, James Montgomery Flagg and Howard Pyle. I looked at art books and favored painters like Van Gogh, Gauguin, Rembrandt and Raphael. If there were drawings in a book I loved gazing at them. The Silver Age of comics had the most influence on me as a comic book artist. Jack Kirby was a big influence, then there was Steve Ditko, Wally Wood, Gil Kane and so many more. It wasn’t always just art though, I also liked writing stories. I picked up Edgar Allen Poe in grade school and wow, I thought that was great stuff. No more Dick and Jane for me. Poe is the earliest writer that I can remember who influenced me. Later on there were others, such as Robert E. Howard, Albert Camus, Robert Heinlein and others.
3. Q: Whose comics are you into these days?
A: My financial situation keeps me from being into too many comics these days. Otherwise I would be into just about every comic I could get my hands on, but then I wouldn’t have the time to read all of them. However, I usually pick up Harvey Pekar collections when I can. I like his autobiographical stories and I enjoy seeing the many different artists that he uses to illustrate his stories. I also buy Marvel Essentials and DC Showcase Presents books. They are 500 page, black and white reprints of Silver Age comics. A lot of these comics are ones that I used to own. This is my way of getting my collection back, but these are also some of my all time favorite comics.
4. Q Can you tell us a little about your experience as a graphic artist in the seventies and eighties?
A: It was 1978 when I started working as a graphic artist. The comic book store, that I owned, had just gone out of business and I needed a job. I had a degree in fine art which didn’t make me a good candidate for a graphic arts position, but what’s a guy to do? They didn’t have jobs posted for fine artists and I needed a job quick. I squeaked my way into a position at this company preparing ads for the yellow pages. The company produced ads for yellow page books all across the country. I was at the low end of the food chain of graphic artists. It was a low paying job and not very flashy. At this job is where I used technical pens for the first time. We used them for drawing borders and doing art for the yellow page ads. I learned about paste-up, preparing camera ready art, making layouts, using a stat camera, the effect of reduction on art, meeting deadlines, working with an editor and the basics of graphic arts. It was somewhat like factory work, but at least I was working as an artist.
I worked for another company for a short time. It was better pay, but I was doing lower scale work even though they produced work for a major hotel chain. I actually found that I missed the yellow pages where as an artist you did the whole ad. You felt like you were accomplishing something. Overall I got some good out of being a graphic artist and I’ve used those skills as a comic book artist.
5. Q: What inspired your “Life Among the Weirdos” series, and do you plan on doing any more?
A: Yes, I do plan to do more ‘Weirdos’ cartoons. Though it will be a few months before I start it up again. Eventually I want to put together a collection of these cartoons and publish them in book form. Incidentally, I’m thinking of changing the spelling of ‘Weirdos’ to ‘Weirdoes,’ which I believe, according to a few dictionaries, is the correct spelling of the word. I purposely went with the ‘Weirdos’ spelling because I liked the look of it and I saw other people spelling it that way. The idea of using a misspelling kept bothering. Now I feel compelled to change it. The strip was inspired by single panel strips like Gary Larsen’s The Far Side, Gahan Wilson’s cartoons as well as the cartoons of Charles Addams and single panel cartoons in general, especially the cartoons of the New Yorker magazine. In college I used to pour through bound volumes of the New Yorker that dated back to the 1920’s. Single panel cartoons are just another one of my favorite venues. There is a certain art to single panel cartoons, a finesse to creating a piece of humor and fitting it into a limited amount of space. It creates a language and way of expression that is the epitome of cartooning. I find it challenging and fun to do. I like the oddness of it too. Like the cartoonists mentioned above, they did single panel toons, but with a twist and a touch of the odd. I’ve always found that appealing. The oddness of it all, that thing called life. It’s like we are all living amongst the weirdoes and we find that we too are one of them.
6. Q: You use some classic monsters in some of your comics. How’d you get into monsters?
A: Isn’t every kid into monsters? I was raised on classic monsters and I pity the upbringing of any kid who’s never liked monsters. I jest, somewhat, but not completely. I was exposed to monsters at a young age, viewing them on the local, late night, TV stations. We didn’t have cable then. I found myself fascinated by them, the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula and the Wolfman. Kids seem to identify with monsters and their plights. I was no different. They were different from everyday life and their stories were exciting even when you knew they were doomed. I loved reading the monster magazines, too. Magazines like Famous Monsters, Castle of Frankenstein and my favorite Larry Ivie’s Monsters and heroes.
7. Q: What’s one of the biggest challenges with drawing comics?
A: Space. There’s never enough space to fit the words and the art together. I always feel like I could use more room to draw. When you have people talking to each other, back and forth, you have to work it so you don’t get your balloons crossing each other and getting all tied up. I get some scripts, even my own scripts, where I would like to add more panels so that I can add more expressions and reactions to the characters and give the dialog space to breath. But, you can’t do that. You usually have limited space to tell your story. Like I said about single panel cartoons this is part of the art of comics, that short-handing of story elements, which are part of the art form. Still there are times I would like to stretch it out and make it seem more natural.
Space also figures in the way you draw your figures and backgrounds. You don’t have room to fully articulate a movement or the details of the background. Sometimes you find yourself coming up short.
8. Q: What do you find most rewarding about comic making?
A: It’s when people let you know that they appreciate your work. When someone enjoys a comic that you’ve done or they get something out it. It feels good when the editor says, good job Jack. When you know, yourself, that you’ve done the best that you could and you see some good in your own work. There are times, when I’m in the process of doing a comic, when the art looks horrible to me, like it’s the worst job I’ve ever done. But, you stay with it, struggle and work through it. It’s a great feeling when you make your way through that and come up with something that you’re pleased with. It still may not be the greatest comic ever done, but it’s something. There is a feeling of exploration in comic making, too. You explore character, emotion and sometimes research brings some things out that you didn’t know before. Also, exploring art itself, of line and shadow and developing your skills.
9. Q: What’s your response to people who pooh-pooh comics as an art form?
A: To use a line from Monty Python; “I fart in their general direction.” I do have a few words for those kinds of people, but I don’t know if I want to go there. Well…here goes…$#%&@#$ and further more…#$%&!/? Usually I don’t say anything because they know not what they say. I found that there is not much you can say to people that have already made up their minds. I keep doing comics in the hope that one day they realize the error of their ways. It is an art form and that’s the way it is.
One time when I was an older teenager I was buying comics at the drug store. A girl, close to my age, was the checker and she waited on me. She said to me, I don’t date guys that still read comic books. I didn’t say anything to her. I was surprised and puzzled. I thought, what makes you think I want to date you anyway? Who’s asking you. But, I said nothing. I didn’t want to say something hurtful or start an argument and hold up the line. I’ve never understood the idea that you had to grow out of things you did as a child. You don’t have to grow out of everything to make yourself an adult. Sure, you outgrow diapers, but I read Shakespeare as a child, I watched sports as a child, I went swimming as a child. Do I now, as an adult throw away those things, that I still enjoy, just to give me the artificial feeling of being an adult? That seems childish to me.
10. Q: Do you have any plans or ideas for any of your work in the near future?
A: I do a lot of work for small press publisher Main Enterprises, run by Jim Main. I just finished two projects for him; one, I inked a story for his horror/western comic Boot Hill and did the art for an 8 page story, by Robert Sodaro, to be published in the first issue of the Big Book of Small press. I am tentatively scheduled to do illustrations for a prose story for Jim’s horror/fantasy magazine Dark Corridor. I’m looking forward to that. That’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a while.
I have plans, for later this year, to begin adapting some skits, I wrote in college, into comic book form. They were originally written for a playwriting class and performed on stage. It finally dawned on me one day that these would translate well into comics. They are all humorous skits and they contain some salty language, but they aren’t really risqué. I have some short pieces that are in various stages of development. They aren’t slated for any place in particular, but they will be appearing here and there as they are finished. As mentioned before, I will be doing more cartoons for “Life Among the Weirdoes.” My son is a poet and I am adapting one of his poems for comics. It’s a dark mysterious poem that suggests some interesting visuals.
Saturday, February 27, 2010
Monday, February 22, 2010
Sometimes life can be mundane, routine and downright depressing. My wife was telling me how much she can't wait for February to end and see some sun and feel some warmth. I couldn't agree more, and if it's been a trying winter for me, I can only imagine how it's been for her, after living most of her life in warmth and sun. Still, I try not to take even the bleakest of seasons for granted and try and find value in the mundane. I find living in a place where all four seasons occur can make one appreciate a new season's arrival. Looking through some photos I compiled in my Flickr stream under the category "favorites", I'm reminded of places I've been to and the times I've visited them. Some places were many miles away, while others were in my own back yard. I'm reminded of the music I was listening to at the time, and the sounds I heard in addition to the sights. Maybe that's why so many of us take so many pictures these days - to remind ourselves of the lives we've lived and the potential for new experiences, both big and small.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
We have quite a few squirrels who run around our front window and provide Kris and I with hours of entertainment. On numerous occasion we've witnessed all out brawls, in the trees, under the trees, in the bushes and almost on our porch. They make some of the strangest sounds too, and I've even had one dropping acorn bombs on my head last Fall. My favorite though, is our pal Fritz, who my wife happened to name. Fritz seems to be the leader of the squirrels here - the biggest and boldest of the gang. Many times we'd find him right by one of our windows, looking as if he was looking in, trying to catch a glimpse of his human neighbors. Here you see some shots I recently took through the window, shortly after the double whammy of a winter storm from last week. We didn't see much activity from Fritz until a couple of days later. He seemed to be awestruck by the cold white stuff suddenly all around him, as he frantically munched on what appeared to be an acorn.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Today we finally returned from a nice, long, surprise winter break. It's insane - the snow we've had, and I enjoyed it in many ways. At this point though, I'm ready to see more green and less white out there. I think most of us are ready for some warmth and sun. In the meantime, I was able to put some of my time to good use, in addition to the shoveling and cleaning, I was able to complete my first official painting of 2010. I'm so painfully far behind the pace I ideally set out to accomplish, but at least one is finished. It's a 24" x 30" acrylic on canvas work entitled "The Lure", and it's mostly based on a drawing I made last year in my Moleskine, which was then colored in Photoshop (see the image below). This was a far different style of painting than what I've been used to, but I wanted to see if I could work in a style similar to some of my recent drawings. The flat colors and linear abstractions didn't leave much room for error and at times greatly tested my patience. I now have a deeper respect for artists who have mastered such a style. I'm tempted to return to a looser, more painterly style, which I enjoy working with more, however, it wouldn't be useful in rendering the works/series I have envisioned. Now I just have to sign and date this one.
Saturday, February 13, 2010
Alright! My second book through Blurb is now ready for purchase. This one, entitled "Selected Animal Sketches and Drawings 2006-2009" is an art book, like my first Splotch Monster book. Now that I've got a pretty good grasp on Blurb's book-making software, I know this one will be especially good. Also, as with my first Blurb book, I mainly made this for myself, though it's available for purchase to the public for those who might be interested. Once again I also won't make a single cent off this book, to keep costs lower. HERE's a small preview from Blurb's site. Can't wait 'til it arrives!
Friday, February 12, 2010
Sunday, February 7, 2010
Saturday, February 6, 2010
In my nearly nine years living out this way, this blizzard is definitely the biggest I can recall. We had a very similar one back in 2003, and the one from earlier this winter hardly compares. It started coming down steadily Friday afternoon, and by this morning we were completely covered. At least our school called off yesterday, and we're officially off next Monday and Tuesday as well. It looks like we may get another eight-to-ten inches on Wednesday now too! My wife has friends over from Trinidad whose flight has been cancelled tomorrow and rescheduled for Monday. This has been quite an experience for them, and instead of hiding indoors, we took pictures today. At least our parking lot got a crew of trucks in to clear it out. Still, it's virtually impossible to drive across yet. It shows how extreme and unpredictable the weather here in Northern Virginia can be. I remember my first winter here, and barely seeing two inches of snow. The worst of this blizzard was when the sky lit up bright yellow several times last night as local transformers blew out. At the same time, it was strangely beautiful. At least we still have our power working. In the meantime, I think I'm ready for Spring to arrive. Click HERE for some more and bigger pics on my Flickr stream.