Nick Bertozzi deals in truths. Not just in the literary sense, with recent tendency toward (admittedly fictionalized) biographies, dealing with some of the last century’s most fascinating figures, including Houdini, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and his much anticipated collaboration with Harvey Pekar, tackling the life of Mr. first amendment, Lenny Bruce.
Bertozzi is also humble. The artist has no illusions about his craft. Where there are certainly a tiny handful of artists working in his chosen profession who have lead artistically fruitful fiscally successful careers, without so much as a single art course, book, or peer edit, Bertozzi admits freely that his own success owes much to hours spent nose to the grind stone, honing his craft through academic means.
These pursuits have also improved Bertozzi’s work as a teacher of his artform, and have leant an air of validity to his recent string of fictional biographies. Beware, those in the audience who have no interest in becoming cartoonists, themselves—part two gets awful shoppy. You might want to go check out the first part, for talk of Spider-man. Consider yourself warned.
How close to Houdini’s actual story is your book?
That’s a question you’d have to ask Jason, because I had zero interest in Houdini, other than that he has a really funny-shaped head, which is really fun to draw, and I really like drawing period pieces. He did a lot of research, so I think while a lot of it’s fictionalized, it’s based in a real milieu.
It’s not quite to the level of Salon, where there’s a whole level of magical-realism running through it.
No way. It’s just his imagining of a day in the life, comprising all of the elements of the good and the bad. It also shows that, not only was he a great performer and magician, he was a fantastic marketer. He was just a really clever guy. He knew how to sell himelf.
When you’re writing a book like Salon, using real characters in fictional situations, do you still find yourself doing a lot of research?
Oh yeah. And it’s not a burden. It’s a joy, and that’s part of the reason I did Salon, to force myself to read books about Picasso and Gertrude Stein. It’s a period that I had been interested in, but hadn’t realized why. I did the research and became a little more informed as to why cubism was such an important artistic movement. I always felt that I’d understood what the picture plane was, and understood who Gertrude Stein was, and I was happily wrong. I had the opportunity to force myself to figure out what the picture plane is, and how that relates to my own art. That’s the great thing about doing comics: not only is there art and literature to draw from, there’s history—you can plu everything into this medium. I don’t mean to sound like an evangelist, but it really is such a cool art form.
You were figuring out the characters as you went along, but did you have the plot pretty well figured out, before you started the research?
No. I knew I wanted to tell the story of how cubism came to be. To me, that was the most interesting part of the story. Drinking the blue absinthe, which allows them to move inside of any painting they want, that took—I was about on page 20, before I realized that I had to figure out an ending for this thing. It went through three substantial edits, after I’d drawn the last page. I ended up drawing a lot more pages, taking out a bunch of pages, and changing the dialog on about 90 percent of the pages. I’d started The Salon before I’d started teaching storytelling, and really, Salon is just grasping in the dark for the narrative structure. I think I found one—hopefully I did, but knowing what I know now about putting together a story, I’d do it 100 percent differently. I wouldn’t want to kill the spontaneity of it, but I’d like to do it with more certainty as to where the book was going to end up, so I could tie up all of the loose ends. That being said, the current story that I’m working on, which is on Act-I-Vate—I do a story which is called Persimmon Cup, which is kind of a sci-fi fantasy story—I have no idea where that’s going. Week to week, I just figure it out, and it’s been such a liberating experience. On the other hand, knowing what I know about story, I wouldn’t have been able to get to the point in Persimmon Cup where I am now, without understanding a little bit better what dramatic conflict is, and how you can put that into a story.
How do find you learn things as you’re teaching them? Is it doing research for lessons?
Well, yeah. There’s a lot of good books out there on how write a screenplay, how to write a short story, how to write a character, and dialogue. If you get a DVD and watch an interview with a director, he or she says, “this is why I chose this theme,” during the commentary. Usually, some of the better directors have something pretty enlightening to say about story structure, and why they chose certain scene or moments or beats. Reading the reviews of books helps and figuring out why writers choose the stories they do choose. The great thing about teaching is that it justifies all of the time I spend trying to make myself a better writer and image creator. It’s like a perpetual motion machine. It’s the opposite of a vicious circle, it’s a wonderful circle.
It’s a bit of a cliché, perhaps, but do you feel like you’re learning a lot from the students, themselves?
You know, I learn a lot from the process of teaching. There have been a couple of students that bring to my attention new artists, and what I learn from them is how they perceive a piece of work, and it helps me understand how they edit themselves, as they draw a cartoon. It’s always easy to forget that everyone doesn’t think exactly like you do. I guess I’d say that I’ve learned not to be so pig-headed, and when I interact with other people, it’s good.
How did you learn how to draw comics, initially?
I used to do my own comics, as a kid, with a couple of friends of mine. I must have done about 80 mini-comics, between the ages of nine and 14. That helped a lot. I guess I learned through a series of failures. When I started doing comics around 23, I learned to do it just by not taking it too seriously, at first. I don’t really take it too, too seriously now, but I kind of have to—I’ve signed a couple of contracts.
I guess the way that I keep learning is that I realize I’ll never be as good a draftsperson as Milton Caniff. I’ll never be able to have the imagination that George Heriman has, but I can try. If I don’t try, then what’s the point? I might as well be creating banners for websites, which is what I used to do. The creative drive fits in with how I see the world, so much. I get really pissed off when I have to live in a corporate environment. I had to come up with some kind of job for myself, where I can be at home, and this is the one. I think I learned because I knew this is what I wanted. I got drawing books and perspective books, and taught myself how to do it. I asked my friends for drawing and inking tips, and had my friends who are a lot smarter than me, edit me, and tell me why I screwed up on this page. And I listen to them. They’re not always right, but they’re often right.
[Continued in Part Three.]