His 2005 release, Spiral-Bound, Renier suggests, was not a submarine. At 178 pages, it was not massive, but was still quite the undertaken, placed against his longest prior work, a mini-comic, numbering somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 pages. The comic’s artwork is rather accomplished first book, and the story contains all the whimsy, jubilance, and adventure of some of our most-beloved children’s stories. Still, Renier insists, it was not a submarine.
His current Scholastic project, the forthcoming, Unsinkable Walker Bean might be it, or maybe those Spiral-Bound follow-ups the artist is planning. One thing seems for certain, however, whatever comes next from Renier is bound to impress, submarine, or no.
When you adapt your friends into characters for a book, can they generally figure out who’s who?
No. When I told Craig [Thompson] that he was the dog [in Spiral-Bound], he didn’t realize it. The submarine in the book is Blankets—him working on this huge, epic project, and me working on working on this 16-page thing I couldn’t finish. It was really daunting to have this friend who could create a submarine. I tried to make it absurd—he would create something deeper, and my character would make a sandwich. At that point, I was dealing with style, and I knew people would say that my drawings looked like his, because I was such good friends with him, and he definitely influenced me to use a brush. Once I moved to Portland, I started making these loopy lines that looked like Craig’s lines. And there’s a part in the book where my character sees someone else’s work, and—not mimicking it, but being influenced by it—has someone call him out on it, as a compliment, but he doesn’t see it as that. It was sort of a preemptive strike against people saying the book totally looks like Craig Thompson’s work. I guess I was giving myself a sort of safety net, inside the book.
Is this book your submarine?
[Laughs]. I don’t know. I think maybe the book I’m working on now is the submarine. I was just saying to Dave [Roman] today, that comics are so time consuming—like knitting a sweater. My sister knits, and I said, “you should knit gloves, and sell them,” and she said, “I couldn’t possibly sell them for the amount of work I put into them. It’s not like sewing two pieces of fabric together and it’s a glove. The time I put into it, a pair of gloves would cost over $100, and that doesn’t make any sense.”
I’d really like to visit the Spiral-Bound world again, and I totally intend on doing that, but sometimes financial security is more important. I really want this project to take off, and then maybe I can have the time to do it, and maybe that can be my submarine. I’ve always wanted to do something that was more serialized. I was always influenced by newspaper comics, where you’d see them every day, and get to know them, over time.
When you talk about the submarine, are you talking about financial security at all? Doing what you’d like to be doing with your life?
More of just an impressive piece of work. I’d never done something longer than a mini-comic—16 or 20 pages, and I have friends that are doing books that are 600 pages. It’s like being in art class and painting a picture, and then somebody is working on a submarine. It’s art, it’s functional, and it’s kind of daunting. Maybe for someone else who’d like to do a graphic novel, Spiral-Bound can be a submarine, like, “oh, 170 pages, and I can only do ten.”
Was part of the reason the book became a fantasy, rather than simply a straight autobiography so that it could keep your attention for those 170 pages?
What was the original plotline, in the rough drafts?
I never did a complete rough draft. I’d draw a page at a time. It was really about these three 20-somethings, a boy, who would eventually be Turnip, and these two girls, one of whom was Emily, whose name didn’t change. I wanted there to be a visual artist, a writer, and Emily was one of the musicians. I was going to work between their three stories. In the beginning, it would focus on the boy, whose name was Toby. He liked this girl he’d met, but didn’t really know. He drew this picture of her, and he made fliers that he wanted to see her again. It was this totally, fresh-out-of-art-school story. The writer would see these fliers, and started writing a story about the boy, without knowing him or the girl, and the stories would kind of develop, side-by-side, and at the same time, their interpretation of the other person would be kind of veiled. You would see how they perceived one another.
It’s sound like it would have been a major chore to have done it, graphically.
Yeah. Even the writing—the struggling writer in the story would do things like, ‘it was a dark and stormy night,’ and the scene would start developing. It was pretty convoluted.
Do you see yourself working on a book for an older audience, in the near future?
Yeah. I would definitely like to. There are things that appeal to me, like zombies…I think there will always be a fantastic element to it. It definitely interests me, though.
So, straight autobiography is out, then.
Yeah. This book that Tugboat put out, Papercutter, had a 19-page story in it that’s like the closest thing to an autobiographical comic that I’ve done. It’s basically a love story, based on a girl, I used to go out with.
Are you still doing mini-comics regularly?
I started on one, that I hope maybe I’ll have for MoCCA. I’m definitely going, and would like to have something for it. It’ll probably be done, but it’s not going to be very long. I have the time, but…well, I should be working on that. Top Shelf has asked me to do another Spiral-Bound series. They’ve said that we can serialize it. I was like, “that’s awesome!” but I just keep working on what I’m working on, and try to do illustration work. I’d love to do it, but I need to structure things better.
Is the Scholastic money your main source of income?
Yeah, that and I’m working on a series of books—The Adventures of Sir Lancelot the Great, a chapter book, written by Gerald Morris, at Houghton Mifflin. The two are my main sources of income.
What were you doing before the Scholastic deal?
I was working at Giant Robot, in New York. Before that, I was working at a studio.
It must be great being able to do this full-time, now.
Yeah, it’s exactly what I want. I’ll hopefully be able to do it for as long as I can. If I had told myself, aged 8-12, that I’d eventually be a fullt-time cartoonist, that would have been pretty amazing.
Do you paint at all?
Not really. I paint in my sketchbook. I’ve done a couple of shows, recently, with single paintings. I did a painting for this show in Portland that had a bunch of dogs in it. And I did this diorama, a basset hound in a submarine, and you could open it up, and see all of the workings. Whenever I’m asked to do a piece in a group show, I usually spend a good amount of time on it. But I’m not really well-versed in the world of gallery shows.
So comics were exactly what you’ve been looking to do, all along?
Yeah. I honestly always wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist. When I was in college, I had an independent study, with an instructor. I was attempting to do a daily strip, and at a certain point, just because my drawings were primary, and my writing was secondary, he was like, “you should quit focusing on your writing. Just do the drawing.” That was pretty crushing. When there’s a punchline everyday, it’s really hard, and my punchlines were rarely, if ever, funny.