In spite of a couple of chronically depressed protagonists, and a title that could just as easily pass as the name of some self-loathing emo-core record, Jeremy Tinder’s 2005 Top Shelf debut, Cry Yourself to Sleep, is a book filled with whimsical little moments, following the intersecting live of three roommates: a robot, a rabbit, and a human video store clerk.
It’s a thoughtful and accomplished debut from Tinder, a student of Chicago’s School of the Art Instute, who, prior to its publication, was still cutting his teeth in world of mini-comics, some of which will thankfully once again be seeing the light of day this summer, when Top Shelf releases the anthology, Black Ghost Apple Factory.
Tinder is still in school at the moment, working toward his MFA, teaching courses on the side to classes of students who range from junior high school to SAI undergrads.
We spoke to Tinder about working in copying shops, teaching art history at a Quaker boarding school, and why its so tough for a talking rabbit to survive in this world of opposable thumbs.
Was the comic book thing something that you were always edging toward?
I started reading comics in Junior High, and read them religiously all throughout high school and college, and never really did more than design characters. After I got my BFA, I got a job at a copy place, and all of the sudden I had this ability to print my own comics for free, so I started drawing them—it was fall of 2002.
So what were you working toward before that? Were you considering becoming a graphic artist?
I don’t know what I was doing. I was drawing and painting—I still paint, I do a lot of showing at galleries—but I don’t know what I was doing, as far as an undergraduate degrees go. I was making a lot of experimental video, and a lot of instillation art.
Were there comic course available when you were studying?
Not at all. What really got me into it was, in Junior High I started reading the black and white Ninja Turtles series, and that got me into alternative comics. I started buying Eightball and Hate from a headshop in Springfield, Illinois, and then, when I was in college, the local comic shop was this really cool store in Iowa City, called Daydreams. It was run by Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover. They did Banana Sunday with Oni recently, and Colleen did Small Favors for Fantagraphics. They got me into better comics, and that’s when I started making them.
You’re from Illinois, originally?
Yeah, I’m from a small town near Springfield—a little coal mining, farming town.
You were teaching at an Quaker boarding school at one point.
I taught art and art history classes for one year, before I started grad school.
Were you ever considering becoming a full-time teacher?
Yeah, and I still teach. I deferred from grad school for a year, to see if I liked teaching, and I really enjoyed it. I got to write all of my own curriculum. I wrote my own history of comics courses, and my own comic book making class. I think I probably gave all of these kids the wrong impression about what the history of comics is. Since I’ve been in Chicago, I’ve been teaching. I’m actually teaching my first undergraduate college course, right now at SAI. I’m teaching a drawing class. This last year, I’ve also been teaching comics-making classes to junior high and high school students at this place called Marwen Foundation.
Are you finding that an increasing number of students coming up through art school are interested in creating comics?
Yeah, I think so. It’s funny, because people are really into it, but I don’t think too many of the students have the stamina for it. I was kind of the same way. I really like reading comics, but actually making them is almost too much to ask. It’s so much work. But it seems like the junior high and high school students are really into it, and based on what I’ve seen in the undergrad program, it seems like it’s growing increasingly popular. They’ve had little classes here and there at the Art Institute, and I think in that Christa Donner is teaching a class there in the fall, and I talked to them about teaching a course in the spring, or maybe next fall.
I would assume that most of the younger students’—the junior high and high school students—interests lie in superhero and manga books.
Yeah—here’s the fun thing about teaching them, though: they know I’ve got a book out, and they know that [Tinder’s co-teacher, Lilli Carre] has a book out, so they care about our opinions. I have seventh graders now whose favorite artist is Jeffery Brown. It’s kind of fun to shape what these kids are into, sort of groom them to have better taste in comics. Some of them do already—I think they have older siblings. On the first day of class, two classes ago, we had them draw all of the comics characters they could think of, and this one kid, Aidan, on his page, he had Homer Simpson and Spongebob Squarepants, and then…Joe Sacco? It was really hilarious. I don’t know where he got that from. I think maybe he’s got an older sister, who’s into comics.
Do you see yourself doing comics full-time, once you’re out of grad school?
Well, I don’t think anyone can do the comic thing full-time, unless they’ve got ten books under their belt. There’s just not much money in it, so I’ll be teaching and probably doing some illustration work, and some painting for galleries, and hopefully all of that plus comics, should get me most of the way there [laughs]. I have a lot of student loans to pay back, too, so maybe I’ll get another job on top of that. I’m okay with that.
How did the Top Shelf deal come about? Was it just the classic, you submitted your portfolio and they accepted?
I made my first little comics in fall of 2002, and they were sort of arty comics—only one could actually be consider a comic. I thought I was sooo good [laughs]. I flew out to SPX. I thought that I was going to show it to some publishers and they were going to love it. I showed Jeff Mason [of Alternative Comics] and he was really nice to me—and a few other people, and they were really nice. And I met Paul Hornschemeier there, and he was really nice and told me to talk to Top Shelf, because they’re pretty generous guys, and would at least critique my work and tell me how I could get better. I went over and talk to, I think, Chris Staros, at the time, and they ended up writing me, when I got back. They told me what I was doing well, and what I could be doing better. The next year I went to the Alternative Press Expo and showed them what I was doing and tried to get them to put out this comic book series, and that went on for a while. I would show them what I was working on and ask them to do a series, and they’d say, “well, you know, it’s kind of risky to do a series, with an unknown person. Maybe if you made a graphic novel…” And they just kind of kept nudging me that way. I finished Cry Yourself to Sleep in like three months, because I was just trying to get it out there, while I was working in that Quaker boarding school. I knew that APE was coming up, and I just had to get this thing done. I did it quickly and as well as I could. I printed up copies of the full book and gave it to them, and they liked it enough.
Was it tough to do something that long?
Yeah. It was for me, then. I write everything out in thumbnails first, and I guess the scary thing for me was that I just didn’t know how long it was gonna be, I didn’t know how things were going to wrap up, but it’s actually a tidy little book. It was a lot of labor, but it didn’t seem extremely difficult.
It’s also a couple of different, intersecting stories—were you writing those in pieces?
I would think of where I wanted Andy to be at one point, so where did I want the robot to be at that point, and where did I want Jim to be at that point? I kind of knew each individual story arch when I started to write it, and I had to think of where I wanted each story to intersect, and it was sort of weaving these stories together, rather than writing one long story.
I know you have that collection of old shorter work coming out in July—are these three characters taken from those stories?
Yeah. My first 16-page comic that I ever made—which to me was a really big deal—was about these three characters, and I ended up showing that to Top Shelf and a lot of other people, and I got a really nice letter from Craig Thompson back on that. It was like, ‘you know, maybe try again [laughs]. Try to draw it a second time, and see what happens.’ Steve Weissman wrote me back a really nice letter. All of these really generous, encouraging people kept me going. Then I wrote another, slightly longer story with the characters. It was pretty much the same story, but reworked a year later, starring the robot and Jim and Andy, and it just wasn’t great. I’ve used them a few times, but I don’t think I’m ever going to make anything with them again.
If something comes up and I feel like I have something to say with these characters, maybe, but I just can’t imagine that. They’re very much about who I was in a particular time in my life. I don’t think I can relate to them anymore.
Did you chose them for the long-form story because it was easier to fall back on characters that you knew?
I don’t know. I’d been toying around with a couple of other stories with different characters, but I think it was that I already knew who these characters were, and I knew what I wanted to happen. I was a little more comfortable with them. That was easier than going into something blind—not knowing the story or the characters.
[Continued in Part Two]