There’s a lot to be said for the pursuit of happiness, but let’s face it, when seeking artistic inspiration, it’s much easier to turn towards life’s miseries. When the world served K. Thor Jensen a series of increasingly unfortunate events, the author turned his miseries into a road trip.
Three years later, the road trip became a travelogue, forming the basis for Red Eye, Black Eye, the author’s first graphic novel, after years spent penning shorter pieces. When we spoke to Jensen in the Queens apartment he shares with his wife, a dog, and a cat, his life had talking a decided turn for the better, thanks to the critical and commercial success of said book, a new day job, and a baby on the way.
The Jensen we spoke to was a very different person than the outwardly hostile portrayal in his book, thankfully, ‘cause, you know, we didn’t want to have to bust open a can of The Daily Cross Hatch’s patented old timey whoop ass or anything.
[Part Two is available here.]
Be forewarned, the following interview contains some minor stage directions.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on Chemistry Set—this collaborative Webcomics thing—with a filmmaker named Daniel Kibblesmith. It’s a very weird project. He’s coming from a completely different aesthetic place than I am. It’s this very weird, sincere homage to early Image Comics, in a way. It’s got a dark protagonist, and it’s all at night, but it’s filtered through this modern sensibility. It’s a grownup story about these very stupid, childish things. It’s very weird looking—it’s totally different from everything I’ve ever done.
[Jensen goes into the other room to pull out pages from his forthcoming book, and, eventually some old fair, which he’d rather never see the light of day again.]
These are my old mini-comics. They’re terrible. This was me at 15, 16. Just terrible shit. I throw everything out, because I don’t want to look at this shit, but my best friend saves everything. This batch is all high school. It’s autobiographical—it’s stuff about my haircut.
It’s very zine-y, too.
Yeah, there’s a lot of filler in there, too. It’s weird to have these things. This is what I thought was funny, when I was 15, but obviously I was reading Comics Journal, back then. It’s also kind of comforting. I <i>did</i> get better.
What were you reading, at this point?
Oh, I was reading Neat Stuff when I was 11 or 12. There was a comic book store that didn’t give a shit, and would sell terrible filth to children. I was probably also reading some mainstream stuff, too. I was reading Legion of Superheroes and [Grant] Morrison’s Doom Patrol stuff. I was kind of transitioning outwards, toward more alternative stuff, as that stuff was becoming easier to find.
And then when I was 16, I met Tom Hart, who was working at Xandu Comics, and he a bunch of other people [David] Lasky, Ed Brubaker, myself, and [Megan] Kelso, all got together to form this monthly cartoonist group, where we’d met every month, two people would present what they were working on, and then they’d take critiques on it. It was nice, because as a 16-year-old kid, they treated me seriously, as a peer. This was before most of us had published anything.
So that was your formal training?
Definitely. It was so great to have people tell you how to do different things, like working pages out, and making lines. It was so great for me—which didn’t prevent me from being a horrible shit, all the time.
You didn’t do any art school, or anything along those lines?
Oh no, no. I got out of high school and immediately started working. I didn’t have any formal training. I just tried to do my best work, all of the time, and by doing that, hopefully you get better.
Did you have any desire to pursue more formal training?
I would have liked to, but we didn’t really have the money. I could have maybe wracked up a ton of student loans, but I was not into that idea. I wish I had—I still entertain the idea of taking classes. But I kind of have to make due with what I have. I have limited resources, at best. I’m always learning and always trying to learn from other people. I have no qualms asking people how they did things.
Do you still have people who will critique your work?
I have certain people who I trust to look at my stuff, but there’s not an organized group, anymore, because everybody kind of scattered to the winds. But Tom Hart is still in town—I see certain people. There’s kind of a loose group that meets every month at a bar in the city. It’s more fart jokes and dumb stuff, but it’s still a social thing, where you can get things out and work out the stuff. I would love to have a more formal thing. There are some people sort of doing stuff like that.
There’s Artists with Problems. I don’t know how often they meet, anymore, though. There’s still people thinking about it, but the group we had in Seattle was really good. Really incredible talent. It was very weird that they were all in one place. And it wasn’t the Fantagraphics talent, it wasn’t the entrenched people who are already working. The first Zurich Foundation group, basically. People who are hungry, doing their own stuff, without a lot of concern for what other people are doing.
What kind of promotion did you do for the book? I saw you at the KGB Bar reading.
I did a signing at [Jim Hanley's Universe]. Before the book came out, I mailed out a ton of post cards, and previews to all of the stores I thought would be more likely to order the book. Did a lot of online stuff and interviews. The book is already profiting, so we’re not seriously worried about it. It made its money back in the first month. From this point on, it’s going to be a more organic thing. I’m not going to do anything major—maybe a couple of signings. I’ll be at MoCCA at the table, maybe SPX, depending on when the baby comes out. Too young to bring it, this year.
Did you have any desire to wash your hands of the project, once you were done with it?
Oh yeah. The book was finished about a year before it was published. I sent it out to publishers, and got some very nice rejections, and basically [Alternative Comics publisher, Jeff Mason] had to make room on his schedule. I had to take six months totally away from it, and then I got some people who I trusted to take a look at the document, and then just mark it up, all to hell. I redrew, out of the 300 pages, probably 90, total. Not the whole page, always—it was the six-panel grid, so I could go back in and shuffle things around, which was easier than if it had had a more dynamic layout. I did a lot of work on it. I did a lot of modifications to make things more or less important, and erase some things that I didn’t think were helping the flow of the book.
How long did the initial drawing process take?
The book took three years to draw. I started in mid-to-late 2002 and finished in 2005.
So your day job is a standard 9 to 5?
Yeah, and I draw panel-borders and layouts on the subway, and sometimes rough pencils. Also, on weekends, we have a lake house upstate, so I’ll go there to work uninterrupted. At my old job, I had a lot more time to do comics at work. It was a much less involved job, which sometimes I miss, but I’m better off where I am. It’s definitely been an adjustment. I started this new job in January, and then the wife found out she was pregnant the same month, so we’ve had stuff to deal with. I’ve not really been drawing a lot, in the past couple of months. Now I’m getting back on the trolley again.
You’re very much in the other end of the spectrum from when the story in the book happened—now good things are happening to you.
Yeah. It’s looking up.
It’s not nearly as good of book fodder, though.
That’s true. Luckily, I have some material now. I don’t need any new stuff.