BURNS: Were you and your classmates taking work around and showing it to publishers? I’m guessing they were trying to go up to the Marvel and DC offices, but was there that feeling that, “Hey, let’s try to get this published?”
STEIN: I was just trying to work on my skills at the time. I didn’t really feel I deserved to be published. Actually, I started Yeah, It Is!, the book I won the Xeric Grant to publish, between my sophomore and junior year in school. I’d done the first 30 pages of it, and I was sitting around, actually Dash Shaw was walking around, and he looked at it and he said, “Oh, you should apply for the Xeric Grant with this.” And I had no idea what he was talking about so he told me what it was.
BURNS: That was your first time meeting Dash?
STEIN: I had seen him around. I don’t remember my first time meeting him, but he was around. He was one year younger than I was.
FOX TROT AND BEYOND
BURNS: Talk about your first real love in comics.
STEIN: Well, I loved comic strips in the paper. That was my first love. I used to read them with my mom every Sunday when the Chicago Tribune came and they had a comics section. And my favorite was Fox Trot. So every time I’d go on a road trip with my mom when I was a kid she would let me go to the store and pick out one book I wanted to bring on the road trip. I’d always pick out a collection of Fox Trot. I just loved it so much I never wanted the collections to end. Weirdly, I think it still affects my drawing style, because I tend to do this three quarters view that Bill Amend uses all the time, and some of his hunched postures. Also the clean line was always really exciting to me.
BURNS: So why Fox Trot when you were a kid? These artistic conceits wouldn’t develop until much later I’d guess.
STEIN: I think I thought it was funny. I think I was obsessed with the idea of a nuclear family. So I liked those aspects of that.
BURNS: Was a nuclear family something you felt you didn’t have as a child?
STEIN: No, I didn’t have one. I grew up just with my mom and my brother. I visited my dad on the weekends and he had already started a new family. So I think, when I was really little, I was pretty confused about why my family was different and why it had always been different. I didn’t understand when I went to friend’s houses why, especially real young, like 2 or 3, why my family was different.
BURNS: Do you think now, any of those experiences with your family are influencing what you’re doing?
STEIN: Experiences with my family?
BURNS: I guess that desire for a nuclear family. Is that showing through or have you really even approached that yet?
STEIN: No, I think now it’s the opposite where I’ve embraced any kind of dysfunction there is in my family and found it funny and used that as fodder.
BURNS: So then you moved in with a guy who had an enormous comic collection, right?
STEIN: That was when I was in Chicago. After I graduated high school I moved out of my mom’s house a couple days later with a couple guys in this really really bad neighborhood in Chicago. And I couldn’t really leave the house, actually. I really couldn’t. One of the guys I lived with had a huge trunk of comics, and he had tons and tons of alternative comics in there, and I went crazy and went through all of them and was really excited by them. I would try to draw some of them. So that’s how I learned a lot about R. Crumb and Dan Clowes and, you know a bunch of underground alternative comics artists.
BURNS: Was that another case where the line work really appealed to you? I mean obviously the subject matter was more appealing than super hero comics to you.
STEIN: Yeah, and Fox Trot. One step above Fox Trot. Just one though. Yeah, of course. Charles Burns, when I saw what he was doing it blew my mind. It was almost kind of paralyzing because I couldn’t… I feel like you have to put away stuff like that in order to draw. In order to figure out how to master your own style so you’re not trying to live up to people who’ve already mastered one specific style. So I read all of it. Now… I started reading comics again, but for a few years when I was drawing all the time, I wasn’t reading comics at all.
BURNS: Interesting. Have you felt like you needed to play a big game of catch-up now that you started reading again?
STEIN: Well, I had very quickly gone through all the ones that I really wanted. Then I started sifting through ones that I found kind of disappointing. So, after a few years hiatus there’s more stuff for me to read now. So, I can go to the store and pick out new things and be excited by them.
BURNS: Leslie was a strip you drew at what age?
STEIN: Uh… I believe it was 12 or 13.
BURNS: This was sort of an ancestor to Eye of the Majestic Creature, right?
STEIN: (Laughs) Yeah. It was an autobiographical fantasy based comic where I have a little magical bunny and a helpful bird. And the bird, sometimes the bunny, would have a frying pan. So whenever I was being mistreated in class, I hated my French teacher or this or that, they would swoop in and bop whoever was causing me trouble on the head with a frying pan. And it was a strip. But the whole point of that was I knew how silly that was, and the whole point was that it was stupid humor. It was a joke on a stupid joke.
BURNS: Was that your first attempt at a comic?
STEIN: No. I had been drawing them… I don’t know, I think the first one I was six or seven when I started drawing them. I’d do little strips and I did a strip for my little brother called Simon the Super Spaceman. Simon was a really, really stupid guy who was mistakenly viewed as heroic, but really his alien sidekick was the intelligent one who would get them out of bad situations.
BURNS: You should sue Matt Groening. Zapp Brannigan and Kif. You thought of it first.
STEIN: Yeah that was before Futurama (laughter).
BURNS: Do you remember what the impetus was for Leslie?
STEIN: No, I just did it.
BURNS: Maybe to deal with your French teacher.
STEIN: There was definitely angst in it that’s for sure. I started doing it and some of my friends would watch me do it and they’re all collected, I still have the notebook, there’s just strips and strips all in one lined school notebook in blue ink. All my friends would say, “Put me in it, put me in it!” So, I’d put them in it and it just kept going for a while. Eventually I just forgot about it.
BURNS: Did you already feel like, when you were drawing Leslie, that you had a feel for the conventions of comics even then, or was that kind of your first big learning experience?
STEIN: I think, honestly, most kids have a pretty clear understanding of the conventions of comics. From, I would say, second grade on. You know you have the panels and the bubbles. You know your characters pretty much have to look the same.
BURNS: Right, you mentioned that last time.
STEIN: Yeah. That you need to be consistent. And I did follow all those rules in the comic, and I brought certain characters back. I would introduce new characters when it felt appropriate. So, yeah, I think I had a sense of it, but I don’t think that’s extraordinary at all.
BURNS: Yeah. You mentioned consistency was something you really remembered working hard at while drawing Leslie. You were really trying to make the characters look the same in every panel.
STEIN: Yeah, and that was difficult. Especially when you’re not a good drawer yet. It still is difficult when you develop a new character because they change over drawing them hundreds of times. If you look at the beginning of Eye of the Majestic Creature, Larrybear’s face looks totally different than at the end. But now I can draw her in my sleep. She looks the same every time.
BURNS: Had you been published before Smoke Signals?
STEIN: Not anything worth noting, no.
BURNS: Talk about how you got involved with Smoke Signals.
STEIN: Well, I heard that Gabriel Fowler, the proprietor of Desert Island, was opening the store. We had a lot of friends in common. I lived about a half-mile away from the shop. I was just about to self-publish Eye of the Majestic Creature #3, and I needed a place to have my release party. So I went by and I was talking to him about it. I had the release party there, it was one of the first ones he ever had, I believe, and then he started Smoke Signals after that and he said he wanted me to contribute to it. But he’s been great. He’s great for the community in Brooklyn. He’s really championed local artists, and his store is wonderful, so if anyone’s ever in Brooklyn and they want to see a really great comic book store they should head over there.
BURNS: Is Desert Island kind of a meeting ground for the underground/alt comics scene in Brooklyn?
STEIN: Yeah. Everyone has their openings there. I mean, there are a few other places in Brooklyn, but I’m not sure that they do releases. For Williamsburg, that’s the only real alt comic shop.
BURNS: Describe the strips that were published in Smoke Signal, the “Murmur” installments.
STEIN: Those were just me trying to have fun. You know, it takes me one year to do each issue of Eye of the Majestic Creature, so when I get the chance to do something else that people will see I want to make it different and have fun with it, and I love silent comics. I love them. So I wanted to do a silent comic. What I did with the first installment, not knowing that I would keep doing more installments after that, I wrote a poem and then I drew the images in thumbnails to go along with the poem, and then I took out the poem so it’s just the images with no writing, no bubbles, no text.
BURNS: Marshmallow and the instruments were already present in Eye of the Majestic Creature, right?
STEIN: Right, and this was in a different world.
BURNS: Right. Much more surreal.
STEIN: Yeah. And they exist alongside these slug creatures who are kind of evil. I mean they’re not really evil, they’re just these big animals, big carnivorous animals. They’re threatening to Marshmallow and Mimolette. And then the current one which I just did and hasn’t been published yet, which is a full page, the other ones were half pages, my lap steel that’s also in Eye of the Majestic Creature, named Ping Ping, he’s at sea, and he’s having his own adventure at sea while Marshmallow and Mimolette are kind of doing things on land.
BURNS: And that’s going to be in Smoke Signal… what are they on #8 now?
STEIN: I have no idea. Probably.
BURNS: One thing we didn’t talk about that I completely skipped over… You were self-publishing Eye of the Majestic Creature long long before the book.
BURNS: How were you doing that? Taking it to the Kinkos?
STEIN: No, what I decided I wanted to do… You know, minicomics often look pretty bad. So, I thought that this comic deserved better treatment than Kinkos, so, the first one I self-published I did through a now-defunct co-op in Florida, and they were just an offset printing, little tiny company. They could do color separations for the cover, and then everything was just black and white on the inside. On newsprint. So I did that, and that was great because it was so cheap, and then they went out of business. Actually… yeah, it was called the Small Publishers Co-op.
The next issue I did, the #2 I did, was a black-and-white, because the off-set printer I used didn’t do spot colors. That was somewhere in Montana, I believe. And then the next one I did at another place (laughs), this was all a while ago, but the last one I used, they had never done a comic book before, they only did newspapers, so you know I gave them all the sizes and I gave them all these things and at the end one of the guys who worked at the plant sent me an email that said, “This was our first comic book, we’re pretty proud of it. It looks good.” So, I was happy about that.
And I was going to continue self-publishing them — actually I am going to continue self-publishing them, because the book, the Fantagraphics book is issues 1-4, and I’m currently drawing issue #6, so they’re going… they’re not picking up any new comic series put out as issues. I’m going to keep putting them out and hopefully they’ll keep collecting them in books as I put them out.
BURNS: How many copies were you able to get when you were self-publishing them?
STEIN: The minimum for these kinds of places was 1,000.
BURNS: Were you able to distribute most of them?
STEIN: No. (Laughter) Nope. I’m dwindling on the first issue though, which is great.
BURNS: So you’ve got quite a stack then, I presume.
STEIN: Yes. But it’s gone down a substantial amount. When I only have a few boxes left in my closet I get really excited. In New York, space is important.
BURNS: Describe Larrybear for readers who may not be familiar with Eye of the Majestic Creature.
STEIN: Larrybear is a young woman who is… well she’s a version of me. She’s a bit of me. A happier kind of version of myself, and a little bit more childlike. She’s usually a couple steps behind me in her development, and a few steps behind me by the time people see it. But yeah, her basic dilemma is whether or not she wants to be around people or be alone. When she’s alone, she’s not satisfied. Sometimes she is satisfied because she has these anthropomorphic friends that are instruments, but sometimes she’s not. When you first meet her she’s in the countryside having moved away from New York City. In the second issue, you see her trying to reach out to people in the countryside. In the third issue, she goes and visits her family in Chicago. So, you get her kind of back story. And then in the fourth issue, she moves back to New York so you see her amongst the civilized world.
BURNS: We spoke last time about how you feel your style, that you have a style became more apparent along the way. You were saying it felt like it developed organically. Do you remember points along in that development that you felt you had to change things about your drawing or concentrate on different aspects of the drawing to fine tune some things?
STEIN: Yeah. You’ll see in the book, from the first few pages to the last few pages it’s a huge jump in the amount of detail, the amount of blacks I’ve laid down on a page, the amount of stippling. In the beginning it’s just black line work. It’s kind of interesting, and I think in a way symbolic, because as Larrybear, throughout that book, as she becomes… as she’s more in the real world, things start becoming more realistic in the comic: the way they look. And that just started happening because I’m thinking, “Ok, now I do have to draw this building because she’s there and that’s what it is.” And to give more of a sense of where she is in the world as opposed to the countryside which really was, because I’ve never lived in the country, just my imagination.
BURNS: Has it been difficult to convey emotion in the anthropomorphic, I guess possibly imaginary, characters? I guess Marshmallow interacts with Sea Shell, doesn’t he?
STEIN: Marshmallow is not so secretly in love with Sea Shell, and that’s a big deal for Marshmallow because he doesn’t like people at all. You know what, I was thinking about this, and my answer’s different from the last time we talked. I think, at the beginning… first of all, Marshmallow’s sense of humor is very very dry, so for him to have a lack of body movement and expression actually accentuates that dryness. So, I think it works in the character’s favor that he doesn’t have the facial expressions. In the last issue I drew, he gets seasonal affective disorder: SAD. And he starts drinking more. So I started drawing him a little more bendy and trying to make him look and behave in a more sad and pathetic way, and I think I was able to figure that out a little bit more than in the past. And it’s easier because I’ve been drawing him longer, so everything just falls into place.
BUNRS: What about the other two, I can never remember their names?
STEIN: The finger piano is called Mimolette, which is a kind of cheese, and the lap steel is called Ping Ping. Ping Ping and Mimolette don’t talk. Mimolette’s mute but she has a vibrant personality. She’s almost like a fifth grader, and she’s kind of there to show Marshmallow’s softer side because he pretends he doesn’t like her but he actually, when they’re alone, he takes care of her. And he also doesn’t like Ping Ping, but Ping Ping I’ve kind of held off… he doesn’t seem to have much of a personality right now because I’m going to use him in future issues and show his origins and where he comes from.
BURNS: So, as you take more away from what a more conventional character would have to express their thoughts and feelings, do you have to add new things? With Marshmallow you covered that really nicely, but what about without speech?
STEIN: Without them speaking. Well, I rely on Mimolette… They all have object fetishes. My object fetishes with object fetishes. (Laughter) So, I kind of rely on that to show were they’re at mentally. Mimolette is obsessed with a bouncy ball, because she’s kind of weightless and she can hover and twirl and almost float in the air, and so she loves these bouncy balls. And she’s very sweet. Ping Ping, you know he’s… I think he’s… not to give too much away, but he will be talking in the future.
BURNS: Spoiler Alert!
FANTAGRAPHICS, XERIC… AND BEYOND!
BURNS: How did Eye of the Majestic Creature get picked up by Fantagraphics?
STEIN: Well, I met Gary Groth at a convention in 2004, and I showed him this other construction paper graphic novel I was working on that I was hoping he would publish. So I have been seeing him around at conventions for a while, so he was aware of me. I was about to start self-publishing the fourth issue of Eye of the Majestic Creature, but I decided to send it around before I did. But I had pretty much given up hope, you know, “No one is going to publish this.” And right when I had given up hope, Eric Reynolds called me and said, “Oh, we’d like to publish the first four issues in a book.”
BURNS: You were awarded the Xeric Grant to publish Yeah, It Is! in 2003?
BURNS: Ok. Now, with the Xeric Grant, you would have submitted Yeah, It Is completed, right?
STEIN: Right. I did.
BURNS: Then you were awarded the grant and you had to come up with… well, just tell me again how that works.
STEIN: So what happens when you apply for the Xeric Grant, you apply… they don’t need a whole project to be finished, but they need a bulk of it, 30 pages I think. That may have changed since I did it. The other thing they ask for is a quote from a printer for how much it’s going to cost. So, that money goes directly to the printer. You can’t really get away with, you know, just taking the money, running with it.
BURNS: Yeah, It Is! is another one of your construction paper graphic novels, and it was 48 pages, is that right?
STEIN: Yeah, it’s a small volume.
BURNS: And you described this as being a pretty big pain in the ass last time.
STEIN: (Laughs) Well, now that I look back, it really wasn’t. What I was alluding to was that process has trying aspects, being that you’re cutting very very small pieces of paper. It’s very, very messy. You’re cutting out an eyeball that’s ¼ the size of your pinky finger, and it falls to the floor with all the other pieces and you're going to have to arrange it all again. I had that happen three or four times in a row. I think I screamed out loud when that happened. But yeah, it’s really messy, and there’s some aspects of it that are infuriating. And using tweezers a lot. It’s really fun. It’s really fun, but it’s trying. But so is, you know, so is stippling. (Laughter)
BURNS: So, in one panel, how many pieces of construction paper would you include? I mean I know it would depend, but on average…
STEIN: Well, Yeah, It Is! is very simple compared to the one I did afterward that was never published. So, it got a lot denser later on. For one panel… God… hundreds of pieces.
BURNS: WOW! That is incredible.
STEIN: But it depends. It could be four if it’s just a close-up on someone. If it’s a building with windows and garbage cans and cats and people, you know?
BURNS: So how did you decide… let’s just take the side of a building as an example, how did you decide what was going to be what piece?
STEIN: Well, you’d start, let’s say you’re doing a city scene, your basic piece of construction paper would be blue because that’s the sky, and then you’re going to lay on your street or your sidewalk which is grey, and then your asphalt which is black or a dark grey, and you keep building and you have to keep sensing it out. I had a limited color palette, so I’d have to figure out how to balance everything within. So I don’t know… It’s intuitive.
BURNS: And you used some paint, right?
STEIN: Yes, watercolor paint.
BURNS: And that was just to put little accents on things. It was nothing major.
STEIN: Yeah. Like clouds. More so as I got deeper into the process. I would do more watercolors.
BURNS: How did working with construction paper change, or did it change how you think about comics? Did it affect your drawing at all?
STEIN: Yes. I think it made it stronger, because I think doing the construction paper before drawing Eye of the Majestic Creature taught me about composition. I would make my background, I would make my character and my dialogue bubble, and I would push them all around the background to figure out what the right composition was. So it wasn’t constantly erasing and going back, I would just have to slide things around. So I really think it made it a lot easier for me, because I don’t think I had a good sense of comics composition at the beginning.
BURNS: Do you think, looking back now, that the Xeric Grant was effective? Were you able to get Yeah, It Is! to more readers because of it?
STEIN: Yes. Definitely. People look who won online, so your name gets out there. Actually what helped me even more was Alternative Comics picked it up and distributed it in Diamond for me. So, I got it in comics stores around the country.
STEIN: (Laughs) Right.
BURNS: And you were sort of reticent about that. Could you talk about why?
STEIN: I was, because I don’t like reading comics online. I don’t really think it’s the way they should be read. Because if you’re doing comics that are supposed to be published, you’re not thinking about the composition of one page or one panel, I mean you are thinking about that, but you’re thinking about opening up a two page spread. So, if you take a panel out of context, out of the context of the two page spread that it’s supposed to be published with, it can look bad, because it’s not supposed to be a panel on its own. The way my blog is set up, you can only really see one or two panels at a time. So, that makes me a little crazy.
That said, it’s a nice tool because I can show people, “Hey, I am working on this stuff. I am on issue #6. Here’s a little piece from that.” So yeah, it’s just great, but also it’s hard to get it to look proper on the screen, you know? And scanning things in panel by panel is really annoying. So… I try to make a blog post like once a week and have a little story up. Hopefully over time I can figure out how to tweak it and make it work better. A way that I would want to read a comic, even. But yeah, it seems like an important thing to do, to have some sort of web presence so people don’t… I don’t know, so people know that you’re alive.
BURNS: Right. And you had mentioned that you felt you’d shown Fantagraphics you were in this for the long haul. You weren’t just going to draw a couple issues and quit.
STEIN: Right. It wouldn’t do them any good to publish this book if they thought that. I haven’t really talked to them about my future plans. I haven’t really asked them if they want to publish more. One step at a time. But I have a lot of issues in my head for Eye of the Majestic Creature, and I’ve thought it all out. I’m halfway done with the next book right now.
BURNS: Do you feel like you do have a bigger presence on the net now? With the combination of the Xeric Grant, they have a website, and your blog. We talked last time about Tom Spurgeon — he’s been linking to your blog now.
STEIN: You know what I forgot to mention that’s been the biggest thing for me? Etsy.
BURNS: Oh yeah. I watched that video on there.
STEIN: My friend, Tara Young, who I’ve known a long time from the Brooklyn music scene, started working for Etsy. She was doing her “Handmade Portraits” series, and she said, “I’d love to do one on you.” So we did it and that really was great. It helped me with my sales through Etsy, people knew I was there. For people unfamiliar with Etsy, there’s tons and tons of sellers on there. I don’t know, millions. So to get people to your page is kind of difficult. So I’d say actually being on Etsy and getting that video made was probably the biggest deal as far as my presence on the web. Not that it was a big presence. Some presence. This interview will increase my web presence!
BURNS: Indeed it will.