Nick Bertozzi insists that he isn’t trying to be ‘the historical fiction guy.’ After releasing The Salon and The Handcuff King back-to-back, however, the artist/writer has proved that there are a lot worse things one can be. The Handcuff King, a collaboration Jar of Fools’ Jason Lutes, is a fairly straightforward look at a day in the life of Harry Houdini. The Salon takes a magical-realist approach to the lives of Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and their contemporaries.
Bertozzi’s next book will occupy a similar space as his last two. A collaboration with the legendary Harvey Pekar, the book will explore the life of America’s funniest First Amendment proponent and REM song fodder, Lenny Bruce, which, from the sound of it, should be one of 2008’s most exciting underground comics releases.
We spoke with Bertozzi after a nice nap on Mother’s Day afternoon.
Is now a good time?
Yeah. We just got finished taking a nap. We had a good Mother’s Day for my wife, took her out to brunch, and saw Spider-man, and now we’re just dozing at home. It’s great.
What did you think of the new Spider-man?
I really liked it! I like the blockbusters, if they’re done right. With Sam Raimi in control, I’ll watch it.
Do you read superhero books?
Occasionally I look through one. I haven’t read one in a while, but I grew up reading superhero books, like a freak [laughs]—you know, Claremont and Byrne’s X-men. That whole era.
Most of the underground comics artists we speak with have a secret—or not so secret—desire to do their own version of a superhero book. Does that appeal to you?
A couple of editors have asked me to do pitches at Marvel and DC. I’ve done a lot of pitching, and nothing’s really stuck to the walls. There’s a real formula to it—it’s like writing an episode of Friends. I might not enjoy the show, but I still appreciate the craft that goes into creating a joke that a million people can laugh at. It’s the same with superhero comics. I don’t have that talent [laughs].
So if/when you were to do a superhero book, it’ll be very specific to your tastes.
It would have to be. When I was 28 or 29, after doing The Incredible Drinking Buddies for a couple of years with my friend Dean Haspiel, which is a superhero parody, and having diminishing orders on each subsequent issue, I realized that I’d better start doing comics for myself. I’m not that crazy that there wouldn’t be a few other people that would want to read it, though.
Of all of the many pitches you’ve done, do you have a favorite?
I haven’t thought about them in a long while…I wrote one for Ms. Marvel and one Wonder Man that I think is out now. The one I really like a lot—it’s not really a superhero, it’s a bit more in-line with what I do now—was a Haunted Tank pitch for Vertigo. The editor got fired the day I turned it in. It was just poor timing on my part. I had a really wonderful idea for it, but the next editor turned it down, because, he said, “well, Garth Ennis is writing it now.” There are already more established writers in the pipe, and there was one editor who said to a friend of mine, who suggested that I write Wonder Woman and he draw it, and the editor at the time said, “no, you and Nick wouldn’t be good for this book. The only thing you’d want to do is ruin it” [laughs]. So, I guess that’s kind of where I stand with a lot of editors. Oddly enough, because I really love superhero comics. It’s Greek myth, and in the right hands, it can be the best fiction out there. I’m not any kind of snob at all. I love it, and when it’s good, it’s good.
That’s interesting, because the last few things that have come out from you have been similar, only instead of working with other people’s characters, you’ve actually been working with other people.
Yeah, and the great thing about that is that they’re not owned by any company like Superman or Mickey Mouse. I won’t get Disney sending me cease and desist letters. Both books take place before 1923, before the modern copyright laws went into effect. My next book is about Lenny Bruce, and since that’s in the 50s, hopefully we’ll have the blessings with the estate.
So you’re keeping with these fictional biographies for a while?
Yep, but it’s through no fault of my own. I didn’t seek this one it, it sought me out. Harvey Pekar was looking for an artist to do a Lenny Bruce biography, and Dean couldn’t do it, so he recommended a couple of people, including me, and it just worked out that they liked my stuff. I don’t position myself as the historical fiction guy, but it’s not bad. I love doing that stuff.
So Harvey will be writing the script for it?
Yeah, he’s done. He’s actually in the editing stage, so he might still have some revisions. Hopefully nothing too crazy, because it’s due in January, so I’ve got to get on that horse.
Have you worked with him? Did you get to do any American Splendor books?
I haven’t. Dean did a ton of them, and I think he had to do with building Harvey up to where he is now, in my estimation. The stars just never aligned for me.
There will probably be opportunity to do one, if this goes well.
Yeah, though I have a contract for a second book that’s due in ’08 as well, so I’m going to be booked for a couple of years.
For someone who plays both sides of the fence, doing writing and arts, you’re involved in a lot of collaborations.
Yeah. I wouldn’t do it if there weren’t an opportunity to learn something. What are the other reasons? Well, I guess money, but—
There’s an entertainment factor for some of these, right?
Yeah, but even something like that’s pure entertainment like that Wonder Man book that I pitched, that was a great opportunity for me to hone my writing skills. I wasn’t exactly what they were looking for, but I learned something. Same with collaboration. Harvey’s been doing this for 30-some years, so I’m sure to learn something.
Is there a direct collaboration with Harvey, or will he just be turning pages into you?
He turns pages in, but once I get them, there will be a lot of back and forth, because I have a lot of ideas that I want to try. I told him about some ideas and he said, “wow, that sounds great, let’s do it.” I’m sure that there will be points where he’ll say, “you’ve gone too far. Bring it back to where I want it to be.” The good thing about doing a collaboration with Harvey now, having been a teaching for two years, I feel that I can really better articulate why I make certain choices in storytelling.
Were this collaboration to have occurred earlier on in you career, do you feel that you would have been less likely to voice your opinion?
Hell yeah! When James Stern called me, and said, “you’re going to work on this Houdini book with Jason Lutes, from his thumbnails,” I said, “of course. Another opportunity to learn, and you’re gonna pay me? No problem.” He told me, “go ahead, and put your own stamp on it.” That was intimidating, because I knew that Jason would be looking at it. I knew he hadn’t really collaborated with him being the writing. I think he’d collaborated with Ed Brubaker on The Fall [Thanks, Dirk–ed.], where Ed was the writer, but I don’t think he’d ever done it the other way around. I’d only met Jason a couple of times, and I like him, but he’s so good that I didn’t want to dissapoint him. He’s a good draftsman, and I just try to knock out the emotion of the picture. After the first eight pages, I really got a little more comfortable, and I was able to add some things.
Continued in Part Two.