Interview: Andy Hartzell

Categories:  Interviews

foxbunnyfunny.jpgIt might seem like Andy Hartzell just burst onto the scene with his richly-themed comic Fox Bunny Funny, but people in the know have been quietly excited about his work for some time now.

Hartzell has been reading independent comics since college, where he was originally planning to become a playright. He started producing his own, and in 1995, he landed a Xeric grant to produce his comic Bread and Circuses. He worked for some time as a newspaper cartoonist in Las Vegas, and contributed to several anthologies through the years. He now produces his comics out of Emeryville, CA. In addition to his newest comic Fox Bunny Funny, he continues to produce his Ignatz-nominated series Monday, a story starring the cast of the Bible’s Genesis story. The third installment comes out this Fall.

Hartzell’s small press output are often hand done silk screens, and he has an eye for cleverly composed layouts. Hartzell says he grew up hooked on Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons, and his comics seem to show a similar sensibility and visual style.

I met Hartzell when I attended APE this year, and he was one of the most approachable comic creator there. He was there to promote the Bay Area small press collective and distributor Global Hobo.

When I later contacted him for an interview, we had a very nice chat in which I learned a lot about him. The only problem is that I’m a complete idiot with a tape recorder—twice over. I’ll just leave it at that! Anyway, the point is, he was gracious enough to redo the interview—through email because I found I had to back away slowly from the scary recording equipment.

In this interview, we talk about the places he’s been, try on some English class meanings for some of his recent comics, and discuss his comic making process. Hartzell is at the San Diego Comicon this weekend, so make sure to stop by and see his stuff at the Top Shelf table!

Where are you from?

I grew up in West Michigan, near Kalamazoo. I was out in the country, in a farmhouse, but my family didn’t farm. My Dad had an idea he wanted to write and paint, and he has a general dislike of urban areas, and I think he was influenced a little by the 70’s “Whole Earth Catalog” back-to-the-land thing.

It was a good place to be a kid, not such a good place to be a teenager. Rolling hills, orchards, a lot of lakes. Lake Michigan was about 40 minutes away–not an ocean, of course, but you can’t see the other side, so it functions the same way. A conservative part of the country, with a Calvinist, Dutch Reformed cast to it.

I had a romantic idea of big city life as a kid, and fantasized about being like the kid in “My Bodyguard”, streetwise and savvy. Like any self-respecting kid, I wanted to get out of the sticks, and this feeling increased after I met my partner Ron. We had no great attraction to Las Vegas…just wound up there because an opportunity presented itself. I eventually grew to kind of like the chaotic energy of the place, but it’s not a real city, just a big sprawl. I finally achieved my childhood dream of being a city kid in 1999, when we moved to San Francisco, but by then it was too late. The city made me claustrophobic. Now we’re in the East Bay.

So how was your Las Vegas trip? Last time you talked about the small arts community there. Though I have heard about people buying homes there and just plain living there, off the strip, the image I have of the place still makes it seem surreal. What does an arts community do in a city like Las Vegas? How does it influence the kind of art you guys put out?

Well, the imagery of the strip tends to find its way into art pieces created there. You’re always sort of in the shadow of the casino industry…some casinos are even patrons of local arts (the Rio, for instance). Vegas-style hucksterism found its way into the comics I drew when I lived there.

But Las Vegas really is an average-looking southwest city once you get off the strip. Not unlike Phoenix or parts of L.A. Not everybody lives in trailers or hotel rooms.

I think of the city that the hero of Fox Bunny Funny reaches at the book’s climax as sort of a cross between San Francisco and Las Vegas.

You said you were a Warner Brothers and Disney nut growing up. Did you ever entertain the idea of being an animator? What was your usual mode of creative expression growing up?

Yes, I went through periods of wanting to be an animator. I did flip-books and made some animated Super-8 movies (claymation and cut-out animation). I also drew some comics, wrote and illustrated books, and wrote plays. I always wanted to create stories, but went back and forth about which medium to work in (still do, for that matter).

Now, on to some of your recent work. With Monday you took the story of the Adam and Eve story as a starting point. Did you have an interest in exploring religion, or did you use the Genesis tale to tell a different kind of story?

Yes and yes. On one level, the story is a fable about how people deal with change. Adam, Eve and the Snake are just realizing that the world they live in is rapidly changing, and each of them handles this reality in a different way. It can also be seen as a fable about “Art vs. Management”–God being the ultimate mercurial creative type. Sacred text it ain’t–I take some cues from the Genesis story, but I go way off those familiar tracks. Still, it isn’t just a goof or a parody. I think the Garden of Eden story IS a great story. You can deconstruct it, you can explain it away as some sort of gloss on an earlier “Earth Goddess” myth. You can lament the fact that so many people apparently regard it as literal history. But it still resonates, the archetype of the Garden, and the Tree of Knowledge, are part of our collective unconscious.

I know you said that you didn’t necessarily have an interest in exploring the religious aspects of the story creation story, but I think you also said you had an interest in lesser known, more mystical, aspects of Western religion. You draw God in the flesh as a pyramid headed, one-eyed inventor guy. Is there any significance to this? If not, what were you thinking about?

Well, the pyramid with the eye, the symbol from the dollar bill, comes from Masonic iconography. I’m no great expert on the Masons, but from what I understand they have a sort of Enlightenment conception of God as “cosmic architect”, which seems to fit with the character in my comic. I wanted God to be a little bit alien, a little bit scary…Eve spends much of the story wondering whether she can trust Him, and I wanted the readers to be able to sympathize with her.

Monday was pretty dialog heavy, and I was interested in knowing why you chose to go without dialog in Fox Bunny Funny?

Because the story doesn’t need dialog.

The first two-thirds of the story came to me during the course of a day, and I hammered out the final part in my head during the following few days (and then revised it later). I never really thought about drawing it with dialog–it seemed to cry out to be a silent piece.

I’ve always been a fan of well-done pantomime comics, from Otto Soglow to Jim Woodring. I like silent movies, too. I think silent stories demand more from the reader’s imagination. Maybe for that reason, you can go further into surreality.

You also said that you started off wanting to write plays, but you also said you plot out your stories visually. Would you say plays are one of the more visual styles of writing then?

Not necessarily…depends on the play, I guess.

I have been told that my comics are more theatrical than cinematic, and I think there’s something to that. I tend to keep my “camera” steady, without a lot of close-ups, so panel-to-panel transitions are more about the “acting”, changing poses, than about reframing the scene. I go for theatrical poses, takes to the audience and that kind of thing. I like broad acting.

I really like your title, Fox Bunny Funny. Did it take much time to come up with it?

My original title was “Fox Rabbit Fox“, then I toyed with “Rabbitholes” before settling on “Fox Bunny Funny.” I like the fact that the word “Funny” is a hybrid of “Fox” and “Bunny“, like the city in the book is a hybrid of the two worlds. I’m glad you like the title…some people are a little stymied by it.

How did you choose foxes and bunnies as your characters in Fox Bunny Funny? When I read a story about anthropomorphized animals, I kind of automatically search out the metaphor because I assume the animals stand for human beings. I suppose Aesops fables has something to do with it. Is this how you see your work? Or do the stories stand on their own as just plain stories about animals with their own lives?

Yes, foxes and rabbits are kind of standard animal-fable critters. I don’t think I ever considered different species. Of course they stand for human beings, and the predator-prey relationship stands for…something, but it doesn’t resolve itself perfectly into any real-life social metaphor.

You said you worked at a toy company. What was your job there?

I worked for LeapFrog Toys for about five years. I started out doing prototypes, ended by designing new toys.

What was the process by which you got started in comics?

I started gooing to the San Diego comic-con when I came out West in ’91. I was hanging out with other aspiring cartoonists, and started self-publishing some minicomics. I published Bread and Circuses with the Xeric grant in 95, contributed to some anthologies, drew a weekly strip for a while. I haven’t been incredibly prolific, but I’ve kept at it.

Do you have any background in book arts? Is there any particular reason that Global Hobo focuses on handcrafted comics (other than it being very beautiful)?

I think, as the minicomics scene has evolved, production values have continued to get higher. Nowadays, beautifully-produced minis are the norm. Not all Hobo books have silkscreened covers, but we like that there’s sort of a “line look.”

How long does it take for you to create a comic? How long does it take to produce one after you’ve got a finished story and panels (in terms of the silkscreening and binding).

Depends on the comic. I did my first draft of Fox Bunny Funny in about six months, then it took another six to revise. Monday is more elaborate than Fox Bunny Funny in style and layout, and it takes a longer to draw.

Silkscreening is a slow process, at least for me, but it’s meditative and relaxing…usually I’ll spend a full day in the studio to produce a couple-hundred books.

You currently work and live in the bay area. What is that like?

Expensive, but nice. We’ve got a good community of comic artists,
though we keep losing people to Portland.

—Elizabeth Chou

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