One of the biggest pleasures of attending a comics convention is the opportunity to watch creators interact. It could be in the more formalized (and arguable more artificial) setting of a panel, or, more organically, on the showroom floor. It’s a chance to catch up with old friends, talk craft, complain about table prices and the lack of decent restaurants in the surrounding area, and, in some cases, discuss the possibility for future collaboration.
As a critic, the convention offers the opportunity to engage multiple artists at once, sometimes in the context of an interview—something I would almost certainly do more often, were I more skilled at the art of working around people’s schedules.
It sounds like laziness (and, to some degree, it almost certainly is), but sometimes it’s just best to let these sorts of conversations happen by chance. At last weekend’s MoCCA Fest, I didn’t have nearly as much time on the show room floor as I would have liked, but during that brief time, I bumped into Jamie Tanner, the artist behind The Aviary, who had opted to forgo the aforementioned table prices, in favor of attending the show as a spectator.
With 20 or so minutes to spare, Tanner and I opted to take one another up on our much delayed promise of a Cross Hatch interview. Entering the MoCCA green room, we bumped into Jam in the Band’s Robin Enrico, turning what began as a casual conversation into an genuine interview (these days most of my conversations seem to resemble interviews, anyway).
In the true spirit of impromptuness, the following interview begins a few minutes into said conversation, and take more than a few detours along the way.
You and MK [Reed] are roommates?
Robin Enrico: Yeah.
Jamie Tanner: Don’t you have other cartoonist roommates, too?
RE: Yeah. For a while we had a lot of SVA graduate roommates, and now we have Rivkah, who had a book with Tokyopop, a couple of years ago. We just had someone who just started working at the CBLDF move in.
What’s it like living with cartoonists? How messy is your apartment?
RE: Not that messy, because I’m the fucking dad of the house. I’m like, “someone needs to do the dishes.” Sorry, I use my professor voice, sometimes. I was shouting.
JT: Professor dad.
RE: Sometimes I have to shout at my students.
I didn’t know you were teaching.
RE: Yeah, four college courses.
RE: Three at Mercy. Two English, one film. And then I’m teaching one comics course at [Borough of Manhattan Community College] this semester, which apparently—Alec Longstreth had developed it, and he went up north.
RE: So my mom teaches there and she said, “get my son, he’s really good.” So they called me in, and apparently I’m doing it in the fall. They want me to develop a comics program.
RE: Yeah, I think it’s because, even though it’s tough on my students and a lot of them are finding out how hard it is to do comics right now, the ones who stick with it are getting a lot out of it, and I think a lot of kids are initially very excited by the idea of a comics course.
It definitely seems to be at the point now where someone opens up a course catalog, sees a comics course, and then says, “cool, I can fuck off for an hour.”
RE: Then you get me and I’m like [drill instructor voice], “where are you pencils?”
RE: I’m not super-intense because I feel like the lesson you learn in comics, and anything, and the lesson I’ve learned from going to these shows, all these years, is that it doesn’t matter how good you are, just do it. I started out the worst. I have been to every MoCCA, and those early ones, I was a joke. I saw somebody take my comic and through it in the trash, in front of my face. That is a true story, swear to god.
JT: That’s just sad.
That personally clearly had some issues of their own that needed dealing with.
RE: They didn’t know I was looking at them. And those comics deserved to be thrown out. But I’ve stuck with it. I’ve lost count—I’ve done, like 500 pages now. The stuff I’m doing now is pretty good.
Five-hundred published pages?
RE: I mean, published by me, yeah.
JT: That counts as publishing.
[To Enrico] You went to SVA?
Did you go to a cartooning school?
RE: I studied film. My dollars job is—I used to be a music video editor for five years, and that job dried up, so now I’m teaching. I still do freelance video stuff. But I didn’t draw until 2003.
I know it’s a little cliché, but studying film probably helped, right, in terms of being able to storyboard and the like?
RE: Um, I think—MK Reed comes from the same place. We both went to Syracuse together. We’re both writers. We’re really good writers, and both of us needed a vehicle to get our writing out there. I would write film, but making film is a nightmare. She was doing creative writing, but she didn’t want to get into the book world. We could both half-ass draw, so we ran with it.
[To Tanner] What did you study?
JT: I went to art school. I studied illustration.
Did you study comics at all?
JT: No, at the time I went, it was a fight to do comics. I always wanted to do comics.
Where did you go?
JT: I went to Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
That geographically…Were you the Huskies?
JT: I think they were the Bears, though I don’t even know how I know that. I literally paid less than no attention.
You must have seen a t-shirt or something, at some point.
RE: Go Bears!
JT: Yeah, I think people did say “go Bears.”
You didn’t go to a lot of sporting events at school?
JT: Never. I think they were a particularly bad team, and no one ever went to see them.
I went to school in Santa Cruz, so…
JT: You had a hacky sack team, right? Hacky sack and mushrooms.
You joke, but we had the best Ultimate Frisbee Team in the country, I believe.
JT: Not a lot of schools can make that claim.
So, you were making comics?
JT: At the time, comics were not respected at the collegiate level. I always wanted to do comics, and it was drilled into me that, if you want to do comics, you study illustration.
How long ago are we talking about?
JT: 94-98, I was in school. I would do comics and some teachers in illustration courses would let me do comics for certain projects, but they were looking at it from a different point of view. Even people who did comics, it wasn’t a part of the program, and there wasn’t a comics course there.
Did studying illustration help you make comics?
JT: It did in some ways. It made me not want to do illustration as much and made me want to do comics more. But the one benefit would be the overall thinking that’s drilled into you in art school, as a way to creatively approach something and composition. There’s a lot of elements that are useful to cartoonists.
Your stuff seems very design-oriented. Just looking at the cover of one of your books, it seems clear that you’ve got a background in illustration.
JT: I wish I could say that it’s as conscious as something I’d learned in school, but that’s probably more based on recent interests, trying to rip off things that I think are nicely designed.
[Continued in Part Two]