In a world of colorful characters, Alec Longstreth must be near the top of the list of the most enthusiastic people in comics. I met Alec at MoCCA earlier this year, where I picked up a copy of his wonderful book BASEWOOD and got to watch him and his fellow alumni of the Center for Cartoon Studies discuss the school and their work. Alec was gracious enough to sit down with me over Skype to discuss his latest work, his inspirations, and the best compliments cartoonists can receive.

(c) Nate Beaty
Photo by Nate Beaty

ComicsVerse: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today.

Alec Longstreth: Yeah, thanks for having me on, I’m excited to talk with you guys.

CV: I find that a good way for me to get to know people—and really what I’m looking to do is judge people—is by learning about their collections. Do you have any?

AL: Yeah, I have a huge comics library in my bedroom and it’s kind of spilled into other regions of the house. I also have a record collection. I just moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where my wife grew up, and we just had a kid, we’re looking to buy a house, we’re probably going to be here, so before we moved from California, where we were living, I actually went up to Seattle and cleared out my parents’ house of all of my childhood stuff, so I actually got a lot of my collection stuff from when I was a kid.

I have a whole trunk full of Star Wars figures and that kind of stuff. I have a whole trunk full of Disney stuff. I was a crazy Disney-phile when I was a kid, so I have all my old VHS tapes from that. My wife collects old horror movies on VHS. When my grandfather died, I got his entire jazz record collection, so I have a lot of amazing stuff like that.

And probably the most of it is just comics. And then there’s little sub-collections within in the major library collection. I have the complete works of Carl Barks, the collected hardback slip-case volumes from the ’80s and ‘90s published by Another Rainbow, so I’ve read his entire works. I have every Bill Peet book, who’s one of my favorite picture book artists. And then I have longboxes from my childhood with all my Disney comics, I have every issue of BONE by Jeff Smith, stuff like that.

CV: Well, it sounds like you’re quite the collector; I can tell you that my grandfather would appreciate that. You mentioned Carl Barks and you’ve talked about him in other interviews in the past. Could you tell me a little bit more about what it is about his work that you appreciate and how you got onto his stuff?

AL: Yeah, I think I just stumbled into it. I was a kid, and like a lot of people, I think, my first comic book was just given to me. Our family friend was staying with us for us for a couple days because I think his parents were going out of town on a trip or something, and as a “thanks for letting me stay with you” gift, he gave me a comic book, and it was MICKEY AND DONALD #3, published by Gladstone Publishing, this was probably 1986. And it was just a Disney comic; I knew the characters from the cartoons and stuff so it was sort of fun, and so I got hooked because of that comic and started collecting Disney comics.

I had no idea who Carl Barks was as a kid; I was just reading comics, and if you read Disney Duck comics, there’s like a 99 percent chance it’s by Carl Barks because he drew over 6,000 pages of work, and it’s constantly reprinted because it’s sort of this evergreen content. So I think that was my first reaction is they’re these very entertaining stories. They go on these amazing adventures with Uncle Scrooge around the world, and I just enjoyed them purely on a face value. And when I became a cartoonist in my early 20s, I came back to his work and it was actually getting some stuff out of my parents’ house. I had one of these slip-case volumes of this Carl Barks collection that they had bought for me when I was probably 12 years old, and they’re beautiful, over-sized pages. It’s all in black and white so you can really appreciate the cartooning. It’s not printed on cheap paper with the color all over it that he didn’t do. And then suddenly I was like, “Woah, look at the cartooning that’s going on here.”

So I started reading those, and then you start doing a little bit of research about the history of who Carl Barks was as a person, as a cartoonist, and it’s even more inspiring. I mean, he didn’t draw his first page of comics until he was 41 years old. He had had a whole career sort of cutting his teeth at various magazines, and then he worked in the Disney studio as a storyboard artist and a gag writer for years. It was ‘til he was like 41 that he drew his first comic book—page of comics—of the Disney Ducks, and then he did it for 25 years. He did it ‘til he was 67.

So I think what I appreciate about his cartooning is that there’s a ruthless efficiency to it because he was always on deadline. I feel like some of the mistake that modern graphic novel—I’m going to put that in quotes—“graphic novel” cartoonists make is like, “Well, it should be a piece of art, and so I’m going to spend”—and I’m guilty of this myself—“I’m going to spend a hundred hours on every page, and it’ll be this amazing work of art.” Whereas Carl Barks was like, “I’ve got a 10-page story due every month, four times a year I’ve got to draw a big Uncle Scrooge comic, 36 to 48 pages or something.” He just had to keep it moving, so there’s no unnecessary detail. He’ll do an establishing shot so that you know where you are, and then he’ll cut straight to just characters with a flat background, nothing back there.

And so, that’s something that in my current work, I’m trying to emulate is that sort of ruthless efficiency and keeping it moving it forward. Because I’ve found that other cartoonists that do that, someone like Raina Telgemeier does a great job of that, just: When two characters are talking, let’s just focus on the characters and a speech balloon. We don’t need a bunch of fussy details in the background. It’s actually more effective, and it pulls you in more. So that’s kind of what I’m going for. Also, Barks had amazing plots. He told over 500 stories, and every one of them is this little polished gem of a story.

 

CV: On the topic of efficiency in creating comics, it seems like your philosophy has really developed as you’ve gotten more experienced in making your own comics. Could you tell me a little bit about that, like how you started with PHASE 7, your early time as a cartoonist, and how that’s developed since then?

AL: Yeah, I think with all cartoonists, I mean, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just self-taught when I was starting out. I think I drew PHASE 7 #1 on, like, copy paper with dip pens, with a Crow Quill 102, because I had read somewhere that that’s the tool that cartoonists use. But I wasn’t using Bristol board; somehow I missed that piece of information.

So I’m trying to draw on this paper and it’s bleeding everywhere, and I just feel like, maybe the first four issues of PHASE 7, maybe the first hundred pages I drew, I was just fighting the materials and being like, “Why is this so hard?” Or the 102 nib to try and letter, it’s like “This is so hard for lettering, but it works really great for cross hatching,” and having these little epiphanies. You run into other cartoonists and they say, “Oh, have you tried drawing on Bristol board?” And (gasps), “Wow, suddenly, it works. This is easy.” Or: “Don’t use that for lettering; use this for lettering.” And just kind of piecing all of that together.

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CV: Was this before you had studied cartooning?

AL: Yeah, I didn’t go back—I never took a cartooning class growing up; I started drawing comics when I was about 20 years old, in college, and I had taken a drawing class. And I set up a private study to draw comics, but the person I was learning from had never read a comic book in their life. They were like a fine-art teacher.

So after I drew those first four issues, where I was just fighting with the process, I went back to school to Pratt Institute, in the Manhattan campus, for illustration, though, so again, a lot of my teachers had no idea what I was doing. And so, some of the comics stuff I did, again, was through private studies, and it was teachers kind of rolling their eyes and being like, “Okay, go for it.” Because that was like oil paints and charcoal and “Fine Art” with a capital A and that kind of stuff, but I did learn a lot of visual skills that I’ve been able to bring to my cartooning.

And then I would just say, yeah, as you get deeper into it—or I did my book BASEWOOD, and I learned a ton through that—and after you finish each big project, you refine your process a little bit more. And I feel like I’m getting close to this point where I don’t have to worry about the process anymore. I can just focus on the storytelling, and I can focus on the characters and the dialogue or the story I want to tell or some of the mechanics of comics and I want to do interesting things that only comics can do. So that’s the stuff that you’re freed up to do, whereas earlier on, you’re just like, “Oh raina my god, how do I even draw this?” Or anatomy, “How do I draw an arm holding onto something?” And you just spend hours drawing and erasing the same arm over and over again. Whereas now I can draw an arm; I don’t have to worry about it. So I can focus on, “What is the gesture that’s happening there? Or what does that convey about the character and what’s happening?”

CV: Something that I’ve read artists talk about is the issue of having one work that you’re thinking about for a long time and then producing it, but then that’s not the end of your career. You don’t just stop right there. Do you feel like it was important to do BASEWOOD then, even with the struggles that you had throughout the process?

AL: Yeah, I think I came up with the idea for BASEWOOD in 2000, and then I didn’t start drawing it until 2003. So there was three years there where I was learning about cartooning. I started PHASE 7, and I did some storytelling experiments: one-page comics, eight-page comics, 12-page comics. I think issue three was 68 pages, but it was just stick figures, it was just pure storytelling. And then issue four was 44 pages with the best-of-my-ability art at that point. And then I began BASEWOOD.

But that’s kind of how everything is. Even my webcomic that I’m working on now—ISLE OF ELSI—I’ve written over 300 pages of script that’s ready to be drawn, but meanwhile I’m back on page 18 right now, and I’m going to post one page a week. So you know, it’s intense to think, “Wow, this isn’t going to get posted for potentially years from now, but it’s ready to go and I’ve told that story.” I think that’s just the nature of comics. All comics is is spending time at a drawing board. And it’s a slow, laborious process, even if you’re drawing the simplest comics. Even Carl Barks sat there and just toiled over every panel and every page.

So, yeah, I have a file of stories I’d like to tell, book ideas. There’s a big auto-bio story that I’m just starting right now that was kind of the story—it was the reason that I started Phase 7 in the first place—about me going to Australia and trying to work on STAR WARS EPISODE III as a scenic carpenter. I’ve sort of hinted at it a few times in PHASE 7, it’s sort of popped up because it was this big thing in my life, but I’ve never really told that story, and so I’m finally starting that. And now it’s 2016, that was 14 years ago, I was like, “Ah, I’m going to start this mini-comic and I’ll tell this story.” And sometimes that’s great because, especially with auto-bio stuff, life is still developing, and that story didn’t really have an ending until a couple years ago. And it was like, “Oh wait, this is the ending. Cool, now I can start writing it.”

But if you think about it too much, it’ll drive you crazy. “When am I ever going to have time to draw this? I don’t know, maybe in 10 years, I’ll be done with that story or something.” Because that’s the time scale of this stuff, at least for single creators. If you’re with the Marvel bullpen or whatever, then you can get a different person for each task and you can kind of churn stuff out.

CV: Yeah, I imagine it also complicates things being that you have a full-time job. You’re not a full-time comic cartoonist; you’re also a teacher.

AL: Yeah, and every cartoonist has a full-time job. I think there’s probably a handful of people whose books are selling in the millions that just get their royalty check and they can just focus on their comics or whatever. But yeah, the rest of us, you’ve got to juggle with life. And for me, I just had a newborn; our daughter was born about four months ago.

CV: Congratulations!

AL: Thanks! So my time is telescoping down to nothing, so that was another reason, post-BASEWOOD, where I was like, “I’ve got to figure out how to make stuff take less time and to keep it as ruthlessly efficient as I can.” Because, yeah, some of those BASEWOOD pages took 40 hours to pencil and ink. I just can’t do that. If I spent that long of a single page, the book would never come out. So now I’m down to about four hours of penciling and inking a page and I can have my wife watch the baby for an hour while I quickly pencil half a page and then I can jump back in there and help. So I’m able to keep putting out new material.

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CV: Yeah, you can definitely see the relationship visually between BASEWOOD and your new online work, ISLE OF ELSI, but there are also clear differences in the execution. You’ve talked in other interviews about the painstaking labor that went into the cross-hatching on large pieces of paper, the snow scene—actually, when I was reading that, I was wondering how you did it, technically, and then I was reading other interviews and comics you did about the creation and it was clear how challenging those things were. But can you tell me a little bit about the process for ISLE OF ELSI? Where did that come from and what are your goals for it?

AL: I think the big thing when BASEWOOD was done—I’m tremendously proud of BASEWOOD and all the hard work, but in a weird way, the biggest point of pride is that I didn’t give up, that I did finish it, because it was such a foolish way to approach the work. I teach, and I tell my students, “Don’t ever draw like this! This paper is too big! Don’t do this cross-hatching technique! Don’t have a big crazy snow scene!” All that stuff.

But when I held BASEWOOD when I was done, I just—it’s a sad book, you know? It’s kind of a bummer. The thing that really struck me when I finally held the final book—you know, I did this Kickstarter and I made the book, and I self-published it. I’m very proud of it. It’s the thing I spent the most time on; it’s the biggest project I’ve ever completed. But when I held it in my hands when I read it, when it was done, all I could think was, “Man, there’s not a single moment in the entire book where you would laugh.” There’s not a single moment of joy, where you’re like, “Oh, that’s hilarious, look what’s happening here!” Not that the whole thing is doom and gloom, but it’s a pretty depressing sort of a book. And so I got to the end of it, and I just thought, “Is this who I am? Is this what I want to put out into the world? I’m now a father, is this the book that I want my daughter to read?”

CV: It turns out you’re the guy who wants to tell the story about the older guy’s family dying and then the dog dying, the girl—

AL: Spoilers! Spoilers!

CV: (Laughs.) Yeah.

AL: Just when the old man thinks he can redeem himself, he decides to sacrifice himself to save everybody! Yes, it’s a bummer.

CV: So ISLE OF ELSI is not like that, then.

AL: No, and I don’t think of myself—I hope my friends aren’t like, “Oh, Alec, what a bummer?”

CV: I would be surprised if they thought that.

AL: (Laughs.) Another thing is that when you’re working on something that dark, and it’s taking 40 hours per page or whatever, you’re just in a dark place. Because you have to just spend so much time with it. So I think ISLE OF ELSI, it’s a children’s comic. There’s a direct inspiration, from Carl Barks, where it’s like, I want to make work like Carl Barks’ work because part of what got me through drawing BASEWOOD was rereading all of the work of Carl Barks and just having a blast. It was like, “Ah, these stories are so funny and enjoyable and entertaining.” So I wanted to create work like that.

So ISLE OF ELSI is a kids comic, it’s fun, it’s entertaining, there’s lots of jokes, I hope that it’s funny and enjoyable for people of all ages to read. It’s designed with kids in mind as the intended audience, but it’s safe for adults, is the joke I like to make. It’s in full color, it’s got these bright, open shapes, so the visual feel of it is a lot lighter. It reads more quickly.

I think one of the weird things from BASEWOOD is like, I almost feel like one of the worst compliments you can get on a comic book is that it’s well drawn. Or like, “Oh, the drawings are amazing.” Because that means that the reader was sort of stepping outside; they’re removed from the story and looking at it as if it’s a drawing. You know, “The snow rendering on this scene is so amazing.” So what they’re actually doing when they’re looking at it is saying, “Oh, some dude sat here. How did he draw this snow? Did he draw the snowflakes first?” You’re not in the story in that moment, so that’s showing that the rendering technique is getting in the way of the comic’s storytelling. The compliment you want to get is, “Oh man, I love this character!” Or “What’s going to happen next with this character? I loved in the story when this moment happened.”

Because what that tells you is that the characters are coming alive, the reader is—when you’re really reading comics, you’re blasting through it. You’re turning those pages, you go through a whole graphic novel in an hour or two. That’s when it feels like it’s happening, that’s when you’re really in the comics magic. So some of that stuff I talked about early, you know, not putting a bunch of fussy details in the background. A character is talking? Okay, well, if you drop all that background, then we can focus on the facial expression while we’re getting the information from the speech balloon.

One of the things I tell my students is, it’s just heartbreaking, but people don’t actually look at the pictures, right? If someone’s really reading your comic and they’re moving at full speed, they’re just going from speech balloon to speech balloon. They just kind of absorb the pictures. When you read a comic, you don’t read a speech balloon and say, “Okay, now I’m going to pause and I’m going to look at this panel. I’m going to make sure I see all of the visual detail and then I’m going to move to the next panel and find the next speech balloon.” That happens at lightning speed. You’re just going: speech balloon, speech balloon, speech balloon, caption, speech balloon, speech balloon, page turn. So I’m trying to not put in unnecessary detail to keep it moving.

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CV: That’s so interesting. I’ve definitely—there have been times I’ve been reading a comic and I realize that I’m only reading the words and, of course, I see what’s on the page but I’m not really looking at the illustrations. And then I feel sort of guilty about it. And also now that I’m working for a website that does a lot of comics criticism, I find myself really trying to find details, but maybe that’s not the right way to consume comics. Is that something that’s changed for you over time?

AL: Yeah, I think for me, I do a first reading where I just go for it. Just open it up, start reading, and go full speed. And you might miss the occasional thing, where, like, “What? What’s going on?” And you have to look at the picture and go like, “Oh, I see, he’s handing him a ticket,” or something. And then I think it’s all about multiple readings.

So you get through it, you’re just focused on the characters, the dialogue, the plot, what’s actually happening. And if you’re careful—Carl Barks is a great example of this, he’ll have eight pages in a row where it’s just people talking and running around and there’s not a lot of detail, but he’ll save it all up for that page turn when the Beagle Boys have put termites on the dam and it breaks and there’s a million coins and water and the dam’s cracking. That’s a huge half-page spread, and it’s all visual. If there are no words on a panel, then you look at the visual.

So the cartoonist should be able to manipulate you so that you see what you need to see but just keep it moving. But then I come back on a second pass and say, “Okay, if I really enjoyed that, then I’m going to go in and just focus on the visual stuff, because now I know what’s being said. I know what the characters are doing. Oh, look at that great use of comics here.” And then you’ll find new things visually, maybe do a third reading where it all starts coming together. At least with my favorite comics, that’s what I end up doing, is doing multiple readings.

CV: I just want to take a quick timeout here and say that I just love your enthusiasm for the Donald Duck comics. Those were also some of my first comics because my dad, growing up, those were his comics, so I’m sure he was reading Carl Barks. So when I was a kid, the Beagle Boys were celebrated in our household.

AL: (Laughs.) Well, and the crazy thing is, all over the world, Carl Barks is still celebrated. It’s only just in the last couple of years that, in America, Fantagraphics has started collecting his work in the way it deserves to be collected and reprinted. But I give a whole two-hour-long lecture about Carl Barks every year at the Center for Cartoon Studies, so I’ll try not to get too into it, but yeah, there’s been whole spans in the United States where you couldn’t buy a Disney comic because the license was bouncing around from publisher to publisher, whereas in Europe and all across the world, since right after World War II, 1945, it’s been in continuous print forever. And generations of people over there grow up and it’s ubiquitous. They have weekly magazines where the Carl Barks stuff is just printed and reprinted and reprinted.

So, yeah, he’s a big deal, and in his own home country, he’s almost unknown. This last year, when I was picking up all the stuff at my parents’ house and driving it out to California to then bring it to Santa Fe, I actually went by his gravesite. He was born in Merrill, Oregon, and he’s buried in Grant’s Pass. If you’ve ever driven on Interstate 5 across the Oregon-California border, you’ve driven within 500 feet of Carl Barks’ final resting place. So I paid my respects there, and then my dad and I drove over to Merrill, Oregon, where he was born—just a tiny town in the middle of nowhere in rural Oregon—so I got to see his humble beginnings. Anyways, I won’t go on about Carl Barks. (Laughs.)

CV: I love when people are enthusiastic about anything, and you seem to have a lot of enthusiasm about lots of things. So that’s always a good thing, I think. I wanted to get back to ISLE OF ELSI for second—it’s still pretty early in its existence. How is it going so far? Do you find things changing already? What’s the reception been like for you?

AL: It’s interesting. I’ve never really had a webcomic before. When an issue of my mini-comic, PHASE 7, goes out of print, I post it on my website for free for people to read the back issues. So I have comics online, but I’ve never done an online comic, where it’s brand new content, it comes out sequentially, you have to come visit the site each week to see the next page.

But, yeah, it’s been really interesting. I’m really, really interested, as a self-publisher in the webcomics model, there’s people who have had webcomics for, you know, 10 years or whatever, and they have huge followings that they’ve built up slowly over time. Someone that’s been really inspiring to me is Gigi D.G., who does CUCUMBER QUEST, it’s sort of a kids online comic. Something like that, where she has such a huge following at this point, when she finishes enough content for a book, she does a Kickstarter, it goes well over its goal, she makes a little bit of money, she has a new book out, and she gets back to work, retaining all her rights, not having to sell all that stuff off to a publisher.

So that’s the model that I hope I’ll be able to build. I’m also using Patreon, which is a new crowd-funding platform. I’m at about a hundred bucks a month right now, and I pour a lot of time and energy into that, creating behind-the-scenes content about how I built the world and the characters, and I’m doing posts on my process—I did time-lapse videos of me penciling and inking a page, all that kind of stuff. There have been people that have been doing this for a long time that are making $80,000 a year on Patreon with their webcomic. There’s people making even more than that, I think.

But, yeah, I’m really interested in that business model. When I started PHASE 7, I didn’t clear a profit for like seven years. Or I didn’t break even on the book; it was just sort of a passion project where I’d come home from work, I’d draw my comic, when I had enough stuff together I’d use some money that I saved up to print it, send it out to my friends, sell it on my website, and after doing that for seven years, I got to a point where I have enough people subscribing to the comic that it pays for the issue when it comes out.

So just kind of in the back of my head, I think, with ISLE OF ELSI, that’s where I’m headed, like, “Let’s see what it’s doing in seven years.” I’ve mapped it all out. Everything’s scripted; I just need to draw it. But I think once I’ve done three years, I’ll have enough for a book. And I had a really positive experience doing the BASEWOOD Kickstarter, so I think that would be the plan. I have my wife’s permission to reject any publishing offers. (Laughs.) So I’m going to try to do it myself because I have a lot of friends that are published, and just the way publishing contracts are structured these days, they just want all the ancillary rights and they tie up all this stuff, and I’m just not interested in doing that. I don’t want it to be an animation, I don’t want it to be a movie, or any of that stuff. I just want it to be a comic book.

So I’m excited. I would say the one thing that’s weird about trying to do a kids comic as a webcomic is just navigating that space right now with screen time and parents with their kids, letting them on the internet. So I had to be very careful when I built the site. This amazing web designer that I know, Nate Beaty, who’s also a great cartoonist, hand-built the site, but we were careful to not put any ads in because you never know what the ads would be if the kids were looking at it—nobody wants kids to be advertised to anyways—and then I’m very careful that there’s no links that then lead to other sites so that if the kid was there, they’re clicking on something and off to the races somewhere else. So it’s sort of this self-contained site, and we tried really hard to make it very fun for kids to visit.

I did my first convention—that’s actually where you and I met—at MoCCA comics arts fest, and that was the first show I’d been to since I launched the webcomic, and it was very interesting talking to parents. A parent would walk down the aisle with their kid, and I’d say, “Oh hey, I’m doing this new comic.” And I’d sort of printed it out so people could look at it, and then they’d say, “Oh, this looks great.” And then, I don’t know what the number was, but maybe half the people were like, “Our kid’s not allowed online. Absolutely not.” And then maybe half were like, “Well, what’s the site like? I’ll have to check out the site.” And you give them a postcard. But I’ve had a couple of friends who know and trust me who say, “I read it every week with my kids,” and they’re enjoying it. So that’s really satisfying.

But, yeah, I think all comics are this way, but it’s just kind of playing the long game. Do three years, get a book together, the people who didn’t want their kids reading it because it was online can buy the book, and then if the kids like the book, maybe when they’re old enough to be on the computer, they could say, “I want to see the latest adventure.” I just love the idea that the backlog is there and it’s free, and it’ll always be publicly available.

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CV: You talk about the importance of thinking about the long game. Do you ever find that intimidating at all? You talked at some point about reading a book or an article by Dave Sim and how he said that you really develop your craft after about 2,000 pages. And you’ve also talked about wanting to write PHASE 7 through issue 100. So these are pretty long-term projects, and even with ISLE OF ELSI you’re looking years into the future. Is that stressful as an artist? Or maybe it helps you produce even more?

AL: I find it really reassuring. I think that it doesn’t bother me that it takes a long time. I remember for the first issue of PHASE 7, on the back, I put “Here’s what’s going to be in issue two! Here’s what’s going to be in issue three! Here’s what’s going to be in issue four!” And some of my cartooning friends were like, “How do you know you’re going to draw this? What if you change your mind?” I think that’s just the way my brain works; I like making a goal and seeing it through. Obviously, BASEWOOD, that’s all that is: making a huge mistake on some of this production stuff but having the tenacity and stubbornness to see it through.

Yeah, those are two of my main goals: the Dave Sim 2,000-page theory lines up pretty neatly with the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000-hour rule. And some people have tried to debunk it or whatever, but it’s just a nice rule of thumb. I actually keep track of how pages I’ve draw on my website, and I think I just passed 1600, and I average about a hundred pages a year. So, for me, I will cross my 2,000-page mark in another four years, which was right when I’ll be 40 years old. Which is a year before Carl Barks drew his first page of comics! So I love that kind of stuff.

I’m in it for the long haul; I’m a lifer. I love comics, and I’m not intimidated by that. There might be some weird breaking point where, as you start to get older, there must be some moment where you’re like, “Man, I’ve got all these stories written and ready to go, but I’m running out of time.” And I could see how that might be stressful, or maybe you start collaborating with people and handing some of that stuff off to be drawn by someone else as you have to focus a little bit more on what you want your output to be, but if I could, I would draw ISLE OF ELSI for 6,000 pages. I think Barks was like 6,241 pages. That would be great, if I could have ISLE OF ELSI be that expansive and explore as many topics. I’m excited about that. That doesn’t bum me out.

I know some cartoonists—especially when you start, it can be hard, where you’re just working on a page and it feels like, “Ah, this page is never going to end!” And then you finish it and you’re like, “I can’t do this! I have do another 23 pages before I have an issue!” But I’ve been doing this since 2000, so after 15 years of it, it’s just like, “Whatever.” You put in the time, sit down when you can, keep chugging away, and it’ll get done. The pages start piling up.

CV: You’ve talked about a few comics that you read a lot. Do you have any ongoing comics that you read regularly, or artists that are active now that you like?

AL: Yeah, I’m a huge fan of Jeff Smith. A lot of the stuff we’ve talked about is in his wheelhouse. Self-publisher. What you talked about when you were saying you finish a big project and then you realize, “Oh, that’s not the end of my career. I need to do other stuff.” Jeff is an amazing example of this. Talk about doing one of the great masterworks of comics of all time as your first big project, BONE. People almost forget this, but he finished BONE and a year or two later he did the 200-page CAPTAIN MARVEL thing. Five years later, he’s got the 600-page RASL thing.

That guy just draws comics; he keeps putting stuff out. And it’s not like, “I’ve got to stay safe and stay in the same region of comics.” RASL was this wild departure and had a lot of fun stuff going on in it. So I admire him; I will always read anything that he works on. I know he’s got a new BONE CODE is coming out. I’m looking forward to that. And he’s working on TUKI: SAVE THE HUMANS, which is also a webcomic that’s coming out on his website.

But I’m not someone who goes to the comic store every Wednesday and has a—whatever that’s called—pull list? Is that what it’s called?

CV: Yeah, yeah.

AL: Where they have your comics ready for you? I don’t do that. I think most of my comics reading happens by going to shows like MoCCA. I walk around, I buy stuff, I trade with people. I’m much more interested in self-publishers. At this point, I’ve had almost 200—probably more than 200—grad students and hundreds of more summer workshop students from the Center for Cartoon Studies and the California College of the Arts, where I work. So a lot of times, going to those shows is just reconnecting with old students and saying, “Hey, what are you up to?” So when I come home from a show, I have a huge bag full of comics.

When BASEWOOD came out, I went to 14 shows that year, I think, because I was on this tour trying to promote the book—(laughs) and then I took a year off—but I’m just now finishing the stuff that I collected in 2014. So I’d say that’s most of the comics that I read is self-published stuff from indie comics shows that I go to around the country. And then every once in a while, a book will come out, and it’ll just be like, “Wow, that looks fantastic; I’ve got to pick that up.” Other than that, it’s just supporting friends. I have a lot of cartoonist friends, so when they have a book that comes out, I will buy it from their website or whatever. So a lot of this stuff, just from knowing a lot of cartoonists at this point, that takes up most of my comics reading time.

CV: Yeah, it’s interesting, I think for most people, I think comics can be kind of impersonal, because you don’t always see the writer or the artist. Like, if you’re reading Marvel or DC books—I don’t know what Geoff Johns looks like, for example. But for you, the community seems to be a huge part of your experience, with the Center for Cartoon Studies and your other positions in education and meeting people at conventions.

AL: Yeah, it’s kind of wonderful. It’s very eerie, but I’ve read comics from people and been like, “Eh, I’m not crazy about this.” And then I’ll meet them in person and be like, “Huh, our personalities just don’t really mesh.” And then I’ve had the opposite happen: You’ll read a comic, you’re like, “I just love this!” And then you meet the person and you just hit it off. I mean, maybe that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

CV: Do you ever have the opposite experience, like you read something and love it and then hate the person, or the reverse?

AL: I’ve never had that happen. There’s something weird about it, like I feel like you just have to pour so much of yourself into comics, it’s almost impossible to do that. You know, if you’re a jerk, it’s going to come across because you’ve spent hundreds of hours being a jerk in front of your page of comics, and that pours through. And if you’re a sweetheart, that also comes through. So, yeah, my comics library in my bedroom, I have a mini-comics shelf, and I use cereal boxes to sort of organize stuff as archival boxes.

CV: You cut out cereal boxes?

AL: Yeah, you take a cereal box and you cut the front flap off of it and the top off of it so you can just kind of stick mini-comics in there. And what I’ve done over the years is I’ve labeled them, and it’s all my friends. So it’s M.K. Reed and Kaz Strzepek and Greg Means and Liz Prince. So that’s what my collection has become. It’s like, “Liz Prince is doing a new Patreon where she does a mini-comic a month!” I’m signed up for that. When I get that mini-comic, it goes into that box, and that’s the kind of stuff that I’m excited to read because she’s my friend, and I know her and it’s exciting to see new work from her. I do still have a couple longboxes of, you know, every issue of TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, but that’s in my closet, where I never really pull those out and look at them.

But, yeah, I’ve heard Scott McCloud describe it as the comics landscape has become so large that the curvature of the planet has started, so you can’t see over the horizon anymore, which is kind of amazing. In 2000, when I was just starting to get back into comics as an adult, I would go to the comics store, and I’d walk around and be like, “I’ve read all this stuff. I feel like I’ve read all the major graphic novels that are out.” Superhero stuff has never really been my bag, so it was just kind of like, “Well, I guess I’m not going to buy anything this week.” Whereas now when I step into a comic book store, it’s like, no one could keep track of all this stuff because it’s so diverse and there’s so much wonderful stuff happening, let alone, you go online, and there’s a webcomic for everyone out there.

In some ways, it’s nice, because I feel like 10 or 15 years ago, if I had known that I wasn’t going to be going to a comic book shop every week, I’d be thinking, “How could I stay up on what’s going on in comics?” Or: “You won’t know what the trends are.” And maybe it’s a little bit of social media, but also just, I’m on my own little continent of indie comics, self-published stuff, webcomics. That’s the stuff that I’m interested in keeping track of, and other people are on Marvel planet or whatever. So that’s its own thing, and I don’t really care what they’re doing, and they don’t care what I’m doing, and that’s fine. It’s like the rest of media. No one tries to go to every movie that comes out. You say, “I like sci-fi movies, and those are the movies I go to.” Or: “I like romantic comedies, so I go to those movies.” And I think comics is catching up to that in America, finally.

CV: Do you have any thoughts on how people jump across those continents? A lot of our readers are Marvel and DC people. I started out reading BATMAN just like probably 100 percent of our readers. But then, of course, there’s all this other amazing stuff out there. So do you have thoughts on you navigate the gap?

AL: Yeah, I mean, obviously movies and comics are totally different, but it’s not like there’s someone out there who only goes to romantic comedies or whatever. It’s like, “Well, I was hanging out with my brother and he dragged me to some Marvel movie, so I saw it.” Or: “There was an interesting documentary and so I went to that.”

I think as long as you’re an intelligent person who’s open to things, I doubt, like you’re saying, that there’s someone who’s an avid BATMAN reader, when some interesting non-fiction journalism comic comes out or some auto-bio comic—like, “FUN HOME is getting all this amazing press. Well, I’ve got to check that out, because people are over the moon for it.”

At CCS in Vermont, it’s also interesting watching different classes comes through. Because you will have one person who’s like, “Well, I only like newspaper comics, and I want to make a comic strip, and that’s what I grew up reading, and that’s what I’m interested in.” And sitting right next to them is someone who only reads manga and that’s what they’re passionate about. And next to them is someone who does auto-bio comics, and someone else wants to use comics to do comics journalism. So it’s always interesting, putting all those people in a room and mixing it up, because cross-pollination is good. And when you’re in the Schultz Library at CCS, you’ve got all that stuff in one room, and it’s fun to bounce around and look at everything.

I mean, I’ve got a couple of Jack Kirby things on my shelf where it’s like, this isn’t necessarily my cup of tea, but he’s an amazing cartoonist, he had a huge body of work, every billion dollars that Marvel makes for Disney now is all because of the work that he did—not that they give him credit—but he’s one of the best cartoonists that ever lived, so it’s important that I have some of his work on my shelf so that I can study that and see what was great about it and bring it into my work. I think it’s good to be well rounded and not too focused on your niche.

45

CV: Well, I just want to thank you again for taking the time to talk today. You’ve got a full-time job and you’re producing a ton of great work, and also you have a child now—

AL: (Laughs.)

CV: —so any time you’re able to take, I’m very appreciative. I wanted to wrap up with some recommendations. First, are there any recent works by people that you like or books that you’ve read recently that you think other people should be picking up?

AL: Yeah, my buddy, Jon Chad, who’s one of my closest comics friends, he has a non-fiction book about volcanoes—it’s actually a fictional story but it’s got a lot of non-fictional information in it. It’s coming out from First Second Books. They just did a Free Comic Book Day with a side story from that world that people might have picked up. I’m really excited for that to come out, because if you’ve ever read his books, LEO GEO, it’s sort of a similar thing. There’s this character who journeys to the center of the Earth, which is obviously fictional, but as he goes down, he tells you real facts about geology, so you end up learning a lot of stuff. It’s a really cool format. I’m super excited about that book.

Also, online, I mentioned CUCUMBER QUEST I think is a great webcomic for people to check out if you never have. It’s beautifully painted, has these amazing colors, and is a really fun story. The other all-ages webcomic that I’ve been enjoying is THE CREEPY CASE FILES OF MARGO MALOO by Drew Weing. He’s just an amazing cartoonist. I describe him as a cartoonist’s cartoonist. (Laughs.) It’s just a really fun story with lots of monsters and great characters and stuff. So that’s a really fun one that I check out every week.

CV: I also wanted to ask about stuff that you have coming out. What can we expect in the next few pages of ISLE OF ELSI over the next few weeks, and what else are you working on that readers can pick up soon?

AL: ISLE OF ELSI is currently on page 18, and on page 28, the dragon shows up! It’s sort of a fantasy story, so it’s all building toward page 28. There’s this big splash page where the dragon comes in a starts torching the town. So that’s the page I’m really excited about. I’m going to try to get my followers and friends to make a bunch of noise and get some new eyeballs on the comic when the dragon shows up, because the story really starts picking up at that point and it’s a lot of fun. So that’s every Thursday, it updates at isleofelsi.com.

And I’m working on the next issue of PHASE 7—issue #22. I’m almost a quarter of the way to my 100-issue goal. (Laughs.) And that’s collecting old anthology comics that I’ve done over the years. It’s also got one all-new story, it’s a 13-pager about growing up playing rec-league soccer in the Seattle area. And the next two issues, this issue and the next issue, #23, are both that format, reprinting old stuff and then one new story. And that’s to allow me to help raise my newborn daughter, Suzanne, which is taking up a lot of my time, as you mentioned. And then also to get ISLE OF ELSI rolling.

And after I complete that, I’m going to start—this is very confusing—it’ll be serialized in my mini-comic PHASE 7, but the story is called “Phase 6,” which is the story about trying to work on STAR WARS, on the scenic carpentry crew for STAR WARS EPISODE III. And that’s all about moving to L.A. and working in that business and then going all the way to Australia and knocking on the gate at Fox Studios Australia and saying, “Hey, can I work on this?” And that’s going to be a really long story. I’m really looking forward to relishing that, and my love of STAR WARS and how it’s been really important to me my whole life. So that’ll probably issues 24 through, I don’t know, maybe a 10-issue run. That’ll be a big, fun story for people to read.

Readers interested in Alec’s work can head to his website at alec-longstreth.com or the site of his ongoing web series, isleofelsi.com.

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One Comment

  1. DAILY NEWS 6/16/16 – Comics Workbook

    June 16, 2016 at 12:49 am

    […] I did an interview over at comicsverse.com that was conducted by Jake Grubman. In it, I talk a lot about how I’m trying to be […]

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