Paul Hornschemeier: Sequential Answers
Posted: Tuesday, November 12, 2002
By: David Tang
Despite extensive praising from the likes of The Comics Journal, Scott McCloud, Alan David Doane at ComicBookGalaxy.com and the recent Ignatz Award nomination for his work on the self-published Sequential, Paul Hornschemeier is still for the most part largely unknown to the comic reading public. I recently had a chat with him about his work and feelings about the comic medium...
David Tang: Your work has often been described as experimental, innovative - is this something you consciously strive for? Or do you just have a trippy sort of imagination?
Paul Hornschemeier: When I started Sequential, I wrote in the introduction that it was an experiment, but that was mainly due to the fact that I had no idea what I was doing, so even putting ink on paper was a sort of experiment. As the series progressed it evolved into a sort of purposefully experimental showcase. I blame this on the comics world as a whole. I (was) constantly dissatisfied with two things in comics: 1.) the amount of work being produced, and 2.) the lack of risk and innovation that I see. So I think I was pushing myself due to both of these dissatisfactions. I was producing a 32 page book every two months while attending school (studying Philosophy, not art... I wanted to, apparently, assure that I would be poor) and working three jobs, and these books that I was producing were getting progressively stranger, progressively more experimental. But why not? The beautiful thing about comics being decently below the mainstream radar is that you have no excuse and no pressure to hold back.
Another reason the stories are often "experimental," which to me means simply "not the same crap you've seen before," is that I'm extremely interested in the formal vehicle of the narrative, both pictorially and textually. I'm constantly interested in how you can rearrange any one set of elements to create completely unique and significant perceptions, completely new narratives and interpretations.
Also, my brain is completely backwards from most, so I think the "trippy" explanation probably works well too. A lot of my cartoons and ideas result from insane methods that I couldn't begin to describe.
DT: With such a pervasive presence of experimentation in your work, aren't you afraid that your work might be a little inaccessible? Especially to those that have never read comics before - let alone those who like their comics spoon-fed to them?
PH: I think initially this was making the work inaccessible, while I was still in the formative stages of understanding anything about comics (I'm just barely emerging from that now), but now I concentrate very specifically on making layers of meaning with each story. I want the reader to be able to get from point A to B and understand the simple mechanics (guy wakes up, guy walk across floor, guy puts on pants, etc.). Whenever I ask friends to read a story I've done, I always say the same thing, "Tell me what's happening here." Not "What does this mean?" or "What is this person feeling or thinking?" Just walk me through it... if they can do at least that without any help from me, then I feel the story is accessible enough.
But this isn't something that I do for ALL stories, because occasionally I want to throw the audience out the window and just really get in there and destroy something to see how it works. And I think that's fine, because, while I think there are a lot of people who may get confused, I still think that audiences and readers are more sophisticated than they used to be. You have films that are extremely mainstreamed like Pulp Fiction and Memento that are telling stories non-linearly and I think that is being absorbed by the popular consciousness: people are becoming more able to digest increasingly stylised narratives. I'm not saying that's good or bad, but it is something that I've noticed and something that gives me confidence that it's fine to do... well, basically whatever the hell I'm interested in. Then again, I'd do that anyway.
The other point is that, hey, this is ART. If you have to think about it for an hour or two, then that's fine. I'm not here, hunched over a board for hours on end, in order to bring you easily digestible one-liners and flat meaning. I'll leave that to the latest Marvel muscle showcase. I think the people that are even willing to pick up a book like Sequential or Forlorn Funnies are doing so because they are looking for better literature and art... the little response that I do get from readers is fairly unanimous about this subject: they enjoy going back through the book a fourth or fifth time and picking up something new that alters their conception of the book or the stories therein. I mean, think about it, you're getting more for your dollar. I'm an economist, apparently.
DT: Your art has in the past been compared to Chris Ware - which in my opinion, as far as comparisons go, is pretty up there. Where else do you get your influences from, comics and otherwise?
PH: I knew going into Forlorn Funnies that it would be compared a thousand times over to Chris (Ware)'s work, which I think is fairly insulting to Chris, as my work is no where near that graphic level. I also think it's a little inappropriate, as many of the things that are similar are very much simple surface elements: appreciation for subtle colour palettes, the way we draw snow, the little tails on the word balloons. The thing that I found humorous was that NO ONE made that comparison until my work was in full colour. Now EVERYONE mentions his name. I think people see full colour, open line art, somewhat experimental comics and - BAM - you're being compared to Chris... Which I'm certainly influenced by, considerably... but I would say my work has been just as influenced by Dan Clowes (reading the hardback of Ghost World was what made me start doing comics, realizing what the medium could be... I had been doing Sequential for a few issues before I ever saw Acme Novelty Library, which I had only read about and had to special order as the comics shop I went to was extremely un-independent friendly). And my inking has been far more influenced by Charles Burns, Dave Cooper and Chester Brown. I draw influences from everything I see, really. Edward Gorey, Jeff Smith, Renee French, Jim Woodring, Dylan Horrocks, Russian Film Posters, Craig Thompson, my friends Jeff Brown and Tomer Hanuka, Wes Anderson, 17th century clip art, the Hardy Boys books, Alex Raymond, Pablo Picasso, things I find on the street, I don't know, it's all a very cumulative process... I mainly just find myself seeing techniques and thinking, "That's it! That conveys this emotion or does this thing in a narrative in the best way I've seen yet! I need to apply this to my work" I see everyone as working together to better the medium in that way. I don't believe in producing work in complete isolation (although, don't get me wrong, I often do that in a physical sense).
DT: Colour vs. black and white / grey tone? Which do you prefer working in? Myself, I actually prefer grey tones - because it means I only have to think in terms of white, black and grey. Colour opens up a whole can of worms that a supple body's just not ready for.
PH: I have always wanted to work in colour... So much of the emotional quality of the things I see in the world revolve around colour. The muddled browns, greys, and blues of the city, the subtle fluorescence of oranges, yellows, and tans of the farm lands where I grew up. I've always been fascinated by colour and have always wanted to work in it... after Sequential #7, I resolved to work in full-colour whenever possible as I felt that my work was finally ready for it. I certainly wasn't ready for it in the beginning, and, admittedly, I'm still figuring it out. Incidentally, if you want to check out one of the better colour theorists out there, go to http://www.thanuka.com. My friend Tomer (whose site that is and who produces a great book called Bipolar ) is a constant inspiration to me in colouring and palette selection.
DT: How do you approach making comics? Do you do it the 'standard way', that is, script, pencils, inks - or something slightly more ad hoc?
PH: That is basically how I work, but it's also a bit more organic than that. The script (which I basically type out as a screen play and then break down into panels, then sketch into page lay outs as thumbnails) is often changing based on how the rhythm of the page is working out and how much space is in each final panel for actual lettering. The flow and timing is the final word, so things evolve as I'm doing them. Once I get to ink though, hey, that's it. I just move on. I see all my work as a work in progress... the thing Im working on now is good, but I will do something better. I want it to be as right as it can be in the moment, but at some point you have to cut yourself off for revisions or you'll never put anything out.
DT: Why start Forlorn Funnies? Why not tell the same stories under the Sequential title?
PH: As I said, Sequential sort of took on this experimental role and I want it to retain that: Sequential's purpose is to push things over and beat up the medium, that's why it exist for me now. But I wanted to do a series that, while taking the findings from the experiments of Sequential, is not so out-and-out experimental, not as its mission statement anyway. Forlorn Funnies was an alternative title name I had a while back for Sequential so I took that and formulated the new series... Sequential is research and Forlorn Funnies is development, to create a really needless analogy...I should note that I think the first issue of Forlorn Funnies is incredibly misleading, as it seems to me to just be formalistic fluff. Sort of: Sequential with less punch, but in colour! Whoo hoo! The second issue of Forlorn Funnies is completely different. I'm interested to see how people react to that.
DT: What do you do the week after your new book comes out? Do you keep clicking refresh on your email browser - eagerly anticipating the fan mail? Do you visit message boards as "guest" and read any feedback others post there? Or do you try to keep yourself away from this kinda stuff, and just concentrate on the next release? What man, what?!?!?
PH: I am sleeping. Most of my books are physically produced in about a month, which comes as a shock to most people (except for the people who think the books are crap, I'm sure they wouldn't be surprised). I spend months writing and walking around and erasing and just thinking, thinking, thinking about what things need to read like and what should the production be like on this page and how should the lettering be... then I hit that moment where the deadline is coming up and then my apartment closes up and I work. I don't sleep much, I don't go out. During this period, I typically work twenty-hour days, then sleep for four. Lately I've been scaling this back to only a seventeen-hour day, because I experienced a lot of negative effects to my mental and physical health during book production and the weeks subsequent. That being said, the few weeks after a book comes out, I am sleeping or petting my cat, or just taking more walks. But I'm always writing and thinking about the next one, I can't help that... I often spring up out of bed at 3 or 4 in the morning with some production concept or little snippet of dialogue. I've developed a system where I know whether or not I'll remember the idea, if it will stick until the morning. And often it won't, so I'm scribbling on little scraps of paper on the floor at three or four in the morning. What was the question again?
DT: How sensitive are you to creative criticisms made by peers, Internet message board posters and just readers in general?
PH: Almost no one writes about my work, so it's practically a non issue. From what I've seen thus far, the people that actually take the time to review my books do so because they see something worthwhile or positive in what I'm doing, so of course these reviews are pleasant to read. So as far as my sensitivity to reviews, I'm not sure. It's the same across the board: peers, readers, etc. No one really writes anything. It does become a bit draining, working in a vacuum.
DT: Just by reading the stuff you put out it's evident how much you enjoy making comics - so what needs to happen before you'll be able to walk away from the medium... knowing that you've done what you came to do?
PH: This is far too good a question to be answered in one sitting... I've actually been wondering about this a lot... and even wondering if I DO enjoy making comics. I often walk into Quimby's (an amazing book store here in Chicago) with Jeff Brown and we look over the books... I find myself exclaiming more often than not, "God I hate comics! Where is the new work? Where is the GOOD work?" Every once in a while I find a good mini-comic or some bizarre one shot anthology that gives me a little hope, but damn, it gets discouraging. The other problem with "enjoying" the process of comics is that it robs you of your life to a fair degree. Just this week I went four days without even checking my mail. That's ridiculous and unhealthy, so it often gets me thinking about what I should be doing with my life... (big sigh from the pained artist)... then I think I'm just a big whiner (which I am) and get back to the drawing board.
So let's say I enjoy it: when would I walk away? Well, I suppose when severe arthritis kicks in or I can't produce another idea or story that it is worth setting down on paper. I can't see that happening for a long time... I mean, I'm currently still LEARNING what a good idea really is, what comes across and what doesn't, what works and what falls flat on its face. So I still have a really long way to go. I'll admit that after the next few issues of Forlorn Funnies, I want to pull back a bit and work on music and film which I've been neglecting since I moved to Chicago, but as far as quitting? I think people will have to shake there heads at me for a long time to come...
I think I would ultimately feel happy with "walking away" if a good 75% of people producing books were doing it on a very conceptual level, considering ALL elements within the production of the narrative, and if I was really, disgustingly rich and married to someone who secretly despises me, wanting only my money, and is conspiring with her tennis instructor (with whom she is having a love affair out of obligation to the cliche) to kill me by dropping an (almost) untraceable (but our protagonist - the ever slick but slightly gruff detective - will trace it!) poison in my cup of fancy brand coffee drink. Or maybe I'll just die.
(Above) This is a sketch (done with non-photo blue pencil) of one of the main two characters for Forlorn Funnies 2-4. I drew this on a plane from Pittsburgh to Chicago and I somehow managed not to bust up laughing when the flight attendant came by and looked at the drawing and said, "Oh, well! We're quite the little artist, aren't we?" This woman was maybe five years older than me... do I look like Im two years-old? The whole thing was hilarious.
(Above) A panel scanned before final inking. From Forlorn Funnies no.2.
(Above) The first drawing of Thomas, the little boy from "Mother, Come Home." I cropped it out, but all around this picture is the entire plot for Forlorn Funnies 2, 3 and 4. It's a horrible mess.
First finished drawing of the fantasy portion of Forlorn Funnies no.2. "To Drift Merrily" was going to be an entirely different story, but then I realized it should be an allegorical story and actually be a moment inside the strange fantasy world in which these characters are losing themselves.
The second issue of Paul's quarterly comic Forlorn Funnies (http://www.forlornfunnies.com) was just released. Visit his website (http://www.margomitchell.com/) and buy his books, you will be that much better off for it.
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