Jon Lewis—the cartoonist who was the subject of “Palmer’s Picks” in Wizard #68—was one of the second generation of alternative cartoonists that emerged in the ’90s. It was a small, close-knit group based in Seattle that consisted of Lewis, Megan Kelso, Tom Hart, Jason Lutes, David Lasky, Ed Brubaker, and James Sturm. While they each explored different subject matter with their comics, they all had a strong focus on narrative mixed with a desire to experiment with the possibilities of comics as an artform.
I conducted interviews with more than half of the group; Lutes, Lasky and Sturm were all spared from talking with me on the phone, but I did cover their work in some form or fashion. (If you’re keeping tabs on these things: I wrote about Lasky’s mini-comics work way back in Wizard #33. Lutes got a mention in the year-end coverage in issue #41 and the Top 10 list in #58 for his Jar of Fools. And Sturm got a plug for his comic The Revival in the next issue of Wizard.)
As far as the various installments of this column go, this one isn’t too bad. The writing is more confident, but I guess that’s to be expected when you consider that I had been writing “Palmer’s Picks” for over five years at this point. But, as usual, I was a little late to the game with my coverage of the work of Jon Lewis. While there were some interesting stories in Spectacles—the series that was the focus of this interview—Lewis is remembered today for his first comic, True Swamp. It’s the one that put him on the map and the one that he’s returned to several times over the years. In fact, his old work on the series was collected in two hardcovers by Uncivilized Books, who also published two comics collecting Lewis online True Swamp stories.
The Real World
By Tom Palmer Jr.
Ask critically acclaimed creator Jon Lewis what his biggest challenge was in starting up his all-new series, Spectacles. Getting comfortable with several new characters? Nope. Adopting new storytelling techniques? Uh-uh. Establishing a convincing tone? Not even close. Try learning to draw…cars. “I’m amazed that I’ve been able to draw a few cars that are at least recognizable for what they are,” the 26-year-old Florida resident claims. “I always thought if I ever did a story about the real world I’d alter it in one way: There’d be no cars. Maybe I could have people riding giant snakes or something.”
There’s an obvious reason why Lewis would feel more comfortable drawing humans on the backs of misproportioned serpents. His first series, True Swamp, had a virtually human-free cast (Spectacles marks the first time that Lewis will devote himself to reality-based fiction). Lewis’ debut series, which began in ’94, lived up to half of its name by taking place in a swamp, but the stories were anything but true. The main character was a contemplative talking frog named Lenny who spent his time searching for meaning and dealing with the other denizens of the swamp. Even though he had slimy skin and liked to hop around, Lenny’s struggles seemed oddly human, due in part to Lewis’ skills as a writer.
With Spectacles, Lewis takes his introspective writing and applies it to short slice-of-life stories and the continuing tale “The Frost Changes.” This extended storyline interweaves Scandinavian folklore (Lewis’ interest in the subject comes from his own Norwegian heritage) into a narrative that has the meandering qualities and conversational tone of real folk tales. Like his earlier comics, Spectacles promises to be a fascinating read. Lewis’ work is so engaging because he has a fine eye for details that go unnoticed by most—like the nuances of early morning mist that blankets a city or the act of folding back and smoothing a paperback book page while reading late at night. Lewis’ cartooning includes just the right amount of detail to evoke a familiar mood or setting without being too particular or recognizable.
Lewis’ distinctive storytelling depends a great deal on his artwork. Spectacles has allowed Lewis to explore a new side of his cartooning that was not apparent before. “With True Swamp I had much more of a sense that the artwork had to be very precise,” he explains. “I tried to make the animal characters look consistent, at least to a certain extent. Since I’ve started doing stories with human beings as the characters, for some reason I’ve just naturally gone [in] the direction of the artwork being more loose and the characters being recognizable by visual idiosyncrasies. Animals are less familiar, and therefore you have to do more to represent them on the page. I’m sort of thinking of my human characters as puppets. They’re certainly not supposed to be representational. They’re very simple little contraptions that somehow evoke real people. I think that’s a wonderful phenomenon.”
Even though he’s having fun adapting his style to new challenges, Lewis has moments of uncertainty about his future in comics. “I go through big phases where I think I should be a prose writer,” he says. “I have a little bit of a natural drawing talent, but it seems like everything that I get done in the graphic department is just sheer work—forcing it to look good, building it up from nothing. It seems like I never sit down and have these nice-looking panels come out of my pencil. I always start from this ugly, awkward thing and refine it laboriously whereas when I write prose, it’s something that comes naturally to me.”
Despite whatever doubts he may have, Lewis plans to stick with his craft. “I think I need both things [writing and drawing],” he says. “I need that feeling of facility, but I also need that feeling of real challenge and craftsman-like striving.” Let’s hope that he’s challenged enough to keep making comics for a long time; the comics world will be that much better with more Jon Lewis stories to read and enjoy.
Tom Palmer Jr. wishes he could ride around on a great big snake. That would be pretty damn keen. Too bad he’s afraid of snakes. Wuss.
FYI: The first issue of the quarterly Spectacles series will be out in February from Alternative Press (the fine folks who also publish Indy Magazine). If you can’t find a copy at your local conk shop, you can write to them at
611 NW 34th Drive, Gainesville, FL 32607 (sample issues are $2.95 plus $1 for shipping), call them at (352) 373 6336 or check out the Spectacles Website at http://www.indyworld.com/spectacles. Copes of Lewis’ earlier series, True Swamp and Ghost Ship, are still available (as well as The Memoirs of Lenny the Frog, a True Swamp paperback) from Slave Labor Graphics. Contact them at 979 S Bascom Ave , San Jose, CA 95128 or call 1-800-B66 8929 for a free catalog.
Jon Lewis’ Recommended Reading
“Most of my favorite comics right now are being done by my friends, so they’re easy for me to remember. I love The Sands by Tom Hart, and I really think people should check that out. I think Jason Lutes’ Berlin is great so far; a really satisfying development and progression from what he was doing in Jar of Fools. Girlhero by Megan Kelso is consistently adventurous and rewarding. King of Persia by Walt Holcombe was a great graphic novel which has a potentially wide appeal and a lot of charm. I also like The Trespassers by Joe Zabel and Gary Dumm, and Dylan Horrocks‘ Pickle is always one of my favorites. And my buddy Ed Brubaker, who did Lowlife, is working on a new project. He’s read me scripts over the phone and it’s amazing.”
Artbabe: Now that she’s brought her self-published small press comic to Fantagraphics, you’re bound to start hearing a lot about Jessica Abel and her wonderful comic Artbabe. One of the best things about Artbobe is that the characters not only look like real human beings (Abel is an excellent artist capable of subtly suggesting a wide range of emotions through expression and body language), but they act the way most people act in real life. The last issue of Artbabe (#5, which was subtitled The Four Seasons and happens to be the best so far) came out last summer. if you missed it, write to Jessica Abel at
P.O. Box 642773, Chicago, IL 60664-2773 and send $3 for a copy. The first issue of the new Fantagraphics-published volume two hits stores in April, so now is the best time to get an early start by bugging your local comic shop to order it. You can be one of the first kids on your block to get Artbabe. If your favorite store is run by a bunch of ninnies, you can contact Fantagraphics directly at 7563 Lake City Way NE, Seattle, WA 98115 or (800) 697-1100.
Suburban Nightmares: Artist Michael Cherkas and writer Larry Hancock have just released another collection of Suburban Nightmares stories. Anybody who grew up in the suburbs will get a kick out of these stories, which play off of that creepy sameness of suburban life. Why do Mom and Dad act funny sometimes? Are they really alien spies? Who is that weird guy who lives next door? And why are there different cars parked in front of his house every day? Cherkas’ bold brushwork captures the perfect mood, and Hancock’s excellent scripts lend a sense of realism and honesty to these stories. For more information on the latest collection, Suburban Nightmares: Childhood Secrets, write to NBM,
185 Madison Ave., Suite 1504, New York, NY 10016. And make sure to ask for their nifty catalog full of tons of enjoyable graphic novels.