Your new book, Building Stories, ships as a box with 14 interconnected tales told through books, pamphlets, broadsheets and panoramas. Is experimenting with format something you've always enjoyed doing?
Absolutely; I never liked the traditional American comic book format and tried early on to do something that both felt different and was more attuned to the material it presented – which was exactly what was happening 100 years ago in comic strips, but a trend which went into the remission of newsprint booklets by the time I was born. I wanted to open up the possibilities for other cartoonists just as Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly's RAW magazine had opened up the possibilities for us. Kim Thompson at Fantagraphics was really willing to experiment; I remember how much he and I sweated the idea of putting out a comic book that was just 1/2" shorter than the standard format in 1993. It seems ridiculous now, but I was and still am grateful to him for letting me do it.
Although Building Stories is an intensely physical object, one of the stories first came out as a digital comic for McSweeney's, which itself pushed the form forward. How do you see the two co-existing into the future?
That strip was originally written and designed for the second iPad issue of Wired magazine, kindly commissioned by editor Scott Dadich. I was really excited by the idea of being able to make drawings into tactile things, and to take advantage of this new technical possibility I wrote about how physical contact in a relationship can devolve from affection to aggression. At the same time, I was (and am) extremely dubious about the idea of putting comics into a medium for which motion pictures play just as easily as still ones. Despite Wired's best efforts, the strip became too complicated and memory-hungry to be a part of their periodical, so it lay fallow for a while until McSweeney's offered to do it up as a separate application, and a digital artist named Russell Quinn took the pieces and animations that my good friend John Kuramoto and I did and brilliantly put them altogether as I'd originally envisioned. At the same time, I found the final thing essentially unsatisfying; I just don't feel comfortable charging money for something incorporeal, and though I wrote the strip to be touched and manipulated like the characters in the story it tells, fundamentally I prefer the solid, paper, un-pluggable version, which will at least still be readable in five years and which I sadly doubt the ePublication will be.
Much of your work is serialised first in your periodical Acme Novelty Library, and Building Stories was spread over the New Yorker, Kramer's Ergot and the New York Times Magazine, as well as McSweeney's. Is it important to you to be able to effectively release early drafts to the public?
Not at all, but it's naggingly important to buy food and pay my rent, and serializing work thankfully allows me (and thousands of other writers) to do that. Building Stories actually has more unpublished pages and stories than anything I've ever released (longer than some of my contemporaries' graphic novels, I cattishly add) but that's unusual for me. I always feel very guilty about releasing books that contain pages I've published before, though at the same time, it's also helpful to hear occasionally that a strip I published somewhere made sense or was (or wasn't) as loony as I feared it was -- which is a luxury one doesn't enjoy working in the silence I did while finishing this book.
It's been over a decade since your last full-length work, Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, was released. Was all that time spent working on Building Stories?
I've concurrently been working on another long book, "Rusty Brown," which at the moment is at 250 pages, along with a few other things.
You've frequently been stereotyped as someone who writes tales which are, to be blunt, depressing. Do you think that's a fair appraisal?
Sure, if someone feels that way after reading them, but it's certainly not my aim. I'm simply trying to present life as I've experienced it, though admittedly in my own very shielded, first-world way. My characters suffer very little compared to someone who might've seen their parents killed in a genocide, or endured starvation or disaster. I don't know why some readers or viewers don't find it more depressing that most popular books and movies and television programs can't seem to not be about murderers or rapists or psychopaths -- as if a story simply isn't interesting unless someone is brutally threatened or killed. Violence is always the cheapest shortcut to emotional involvement. I find this trend all all fairly depressing.
Your work certainly does focus on the harsh reality of life. Jimmy Corrigan was often assumed to be autobiographical in elements; does Building Stories draw from your own life at all?
Definitely; it would be a little too complicated to elucidate, but the main character looks not unlike my wife and we do have a daughter, but my wife is a highly accomplished and hard working high school teacher, not someone who feels as if she's wasted her life (which, incidentally, I don't think my protagonist has.) The apartment building in which the protagonist lives in the earlier chronology of the book somewhat resembles a blend of two Chicago apartments I lived in before moving to Oak Park, though the inhabitants are completely fictional. I chose Oak Park as a setting not only because I live here and for its conveniently tight and familiar geography (it's a little over four and a half square miles yet home to 50,000 people) but also its claim to Ernest Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright as its most famous inhabitants -- both of whom lightly key into the book's theme, along with being two of America's best-known jerks.
Were comics a big part of your life growing up? Jimmy Corrigan features a knowing wink to Superman, but your work seems to be far more connected to the American literary canon than even the alt-comix world.
Yes, I grew up reading Peanuts, but carefully copying the pictures in Superman and Batman comics because I honestly believed they presented a more realistic idea of what the adult world was going to be like. However, Peanuts has stayed with me while Superman and Batman have astonishingly moved on to the mass culture. I still can't get over the idea that respectable adults now go to see superhero movies and that such films get reviewed in the New Yorker. Clearly, I am seriously out of step with the times.
You've been called, by Dave Eggers and many others, the greatest working cartoonist. Is that something that sits comfortably with you?
No, because it's not true. There are lots of us. I do try really hard, but I wouldn't ever consider myself the greatest. I've edited two comics anthologies to both pay tribute to and collect work by those artists who've inspired me and from whom I've shamelessly ripped off for years.
The comics world is in a strange place. Authors like you, Daniel Clowes, and Charles Burns are featured in the mainstream press, are read by audiences who would never normally pick up graphic novels, and sell in numbers comparable to straight prose; yet you are still thought of as "alternative" in comparison to the far more niche genre fiction of superheroes and sci-fi. Is that a position you can see lasting?
I have no idea. Tantamount to my comment above, if the New Yorker starts publishing serious superhero fiction, then I'll know something's really up. I simply try to write believable, engaging, funny, moving and hopefully good stories for readers who like and seek out that sort of thing, and I assume we all share more or less the same taste in writers: Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, Joyce, Melville, Tolstoy, Chekhov, etc.
Which up-and-coming cartoonists should we be keeping an eye on?
Dash Shaw, David Heatley, Kevin Huizenga, Gabrielle Bell, Ben Jones, Jon McNaught, Laurent Cilluffo. And my good friend and seemingly permanent-up-and-coming cartoonist Richard McGuire – who's nonetheless had more of an effect on comics than most artists of his generation – tells me that Olivier Schrawuen's new book is fantastic, and Richard's never steered me wrong before. I love Blexbolex's books, as well. Is he up-and-coming, though? I'm not even sure what that means in cartooning. As cartoonists, we're all always up-and-coming until we're dead.