Adam Berenstain: Your Wish is his Comic
Posted: Tuesday, September 25, 2001
By: Darren Schroeder
Have you read the review of Adam's comic featured here a few weeks ago? If not, go read it right now, we'll wait for you. If you already have, be patient.......Okay, welcome back. Now you all know what I thought of Last Wish; It's an unique story told with a fair amount of skill. Maybe after reading the review you want to know more about the creator behind this comic, 'cause reading the comic sure made me curious. As the editor of the site is distracted right now I get to decide what to post, so I thought I'd use this opportunity to satisfy my own curiosity.
Darren Schroeder: What is your full name?
Adam Zebulan Berenstain. I'm told my middle name sounds like the Hebrew word for garbage.
AB: Almost 29.
DS: Favourite web site?
AB: Probably www.theonion.com these days.
DS: What did your interest in comics come from?
AB: When I was a kid the paperback reprints of newspaper strips (early Peanuts & Doonesbury especially) fascinated me. I read 'em over & over again. I never got into "real" comics...they just never appealed to me that much. That changed when I was about 9 or 10 and I discovered comic shops. Around that time the glossy Russ Cochran EC reprints came out and they made a monumental impression on me. They hooked me on comics.
DS: Did they make you want to commit violent anti-social acts?
AB: Nahh. Just violent, anti-social comics.
DS: Did you learn anything from them that you use when making your own comics?
AB: Oh, you bet. Last Wish has a conservative layout scheme and the action is staged very clearly like an EC story. Jack Davis' art has had an influence on Last Wish as well.
DS: Is there anything content wise that deserves to be banned/censored from the comic shop shelves?
AB: No, of course not.
DS: Why not?
AB: Censorship is bad, isn't it? Besides, we have the Comics Journal to shame people into not making bad comics.
DS: The shame doesn't seem to stop some companies from doing so on a regular basis. How do they get away with it?
AB: Are we talking strictly pornography here, or just poorly done comics with stupid ideas? Or both? You can't legislate good taste, unfortunately.
DS: Down here in New Zealand our approach to censorship seems to be quite different to that held in the US. Here it is generally accepted here that there are limits to what can be published as set by a bunch of civil servants, and there's no wide spread belief that this control is a bad thing. As such, I'm sometimes puzzled that American comic creators and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund get really upset when someone is arrested for selling/writing pornography. From my side of the planet it just seems like a far bust, but then it has been pointed out that as an ex British colony our history is of the Monarchy/Parliament slowly giving us rights from a starting point of having none, where as in the US you kicked the Brits out and got yourself a constitution. What's your opinion of the work that the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund does?
AB: I think it's good to have an organization looking out for the rights of people who make and sell comics. Civil servants and pro-family groups are the last people in the world I want to tell me what comics I can or can't sell. The industry is small and poor enough without people paying legal fees to tell a judge that in fact no humans were harmed in the making of their pornographic comic. Now, should porno comics be sold in stores along with Disney Adventures? I don't know. I think that's up to the store owner, and I believe there are laws that govern that sort of thing. You'd think adherence to those laws would end the matter but we have a lot of would be petty tyrants and lawyers in this country, and if I were on the receiving end of their attack I'd want the CBLDF around. Now you've gone and made me sound like Frank Miller!
DS: What got you interested in telling stories?
AB: That's a tough question. For better or worse I'd say the movies I zoned out in front of as a kid and the Beats. Movies got me into the technical process behind making stuff, you know? All the script re-writes and the all the production sketches and all the work that went on behind the scenes was really interesting to me. And the Beats just made it look easy. You could talk about anything, as long as it mattered to you. I think I'm just combining the two at this stage, taking a pleasingly elaborate art therapy and turning it into something somebody might want to read.
DS: Got some examples of Beats who made it look easy
AB: Kerouac did, in The Dharma Bums especially. But Burroughs at his most lucid holds up the best for me these days.
DS: Would you have let Burroughs try to shot an apple off your head with a firearm?
AB: Drugs, booze, mental illness and guns are a bad mix, aren't they?
DS: What was the first comic you published yourself and how did that come about?
AB: Well, Last Wish - the comic I'm doing now - is actually my first totally solo comic. Before this I was doing comics with friends of mine, beginning in 1997 I think. We all knew each other & loved comics and lived in a pretty boring town, so it only made sense. We went to SPX in 1998 and I really got the bug to do my own comics, and Last Wish began in earnest.
I have a weird convention story to add here: at that SPX we were approached by two guys from Ghana (representing the "Rights of the Child Foundation") that wanted to take copies of our comics back to Africa because "the children of Ghana need comics". You have to realize, these were grave, distinguished looking, dashiki wearing gentlemen with a slippery grasp of English asking us slack jaw American dudes for our whacked out sci-fi weirdo minicomics. We had no idea if this was a scam or if we were about to become international comix superstars, but we arranged a meeting in their hotel room that night. We found them hanging out in their underwear, but still eager to explain their plan to include our books in a traveling library that would drive through Ghana spreading the English language - we needed only to keep them stocked with minicomics. So we gave them a bunch of books and never heard from them again. Then more than a year later we got a letter from some kid and his dad, writing to tell us how much they enjoyed the comics!
DS: Who do you see as the target audience for your work?
AB: People who don't normally read comics, or people who are looking for straightforward narrative fiction.
DS: How do you target that audience and get them to pick Last Wish up?
AB: I should clarify that: So far I've only tried to get Last Wish sold in a few comic shops, but hopefully it could be a book you can give to your friend who doesn't normally read comics and they'd dig it. I probably won't get to the non-comics readers until I have a big squarebound book for "real" bookstores. But as for what I've done in the first issue itself... I'm taking a sort of documentary approach to the look and the narrative decisions. Everything looks and acts in a very realistic way, and the subject matter is all very true to life - right off the bat most people should find something to relate to moreso than in X-Men or Garfield. Plus the reader is kept back a bit from the action, and from completely understanding everything that's going on in the first book. What I'm trying to achieve with all that is to give the reader a little respect and not to sell them on a simple story with an obvious point of view. I also think a long, personal, serious story would be more appealing to someone who might usually associate comics with light entertainment.
DS: What qualities do you most appreciate in the comics you read?
AB: The subjective basics, good story, good art...I like comics that seem to come from outside the comics scene, either in style or subject matter.
DS: Do you have a large collection of comics?
AB: Too large when I move! I have a lot, but a less than most people I bet. I've got 4 or 5 of those long boxes full of books. Every time I get a new place I say I'm going to go through everything & get rid of half my comics. I never do, of course.
DS: Describe Last Wish for us.
AB: It's a love story about the relationships we're stuck with shaping the relationships we choose. Moses Frey is a film student who just broke up with his longtime girlfriend for a new girl, and he doesn't feel good about it. But he pursues her anyway and over the course of a year things get more and more serious, seemingly out of control. This takes him back to his family and childhood, which was even more chaotic, and he tries to figure out what brought him to where he is in life. The first issue is out now, and the second should be done first thing next year. I'm always looking for ways to cut the overall story down but it will probably wind up being 300 pages long in seven parts.
DS: That's a big project, you promise you'll see it through?
AB: I'd be the most horribly disappointed if I didn't. I have to do comics, I love this story, and I'm at the point personally where I can do it, so it's not a concern. No, it won't die out. It's a lot of fun most of the time. I know where the story is going and what has to happen but much of how it plays out is serendipity. Like in the second book I'm working on, there's a scene where Moses is talking to his friend Mark and it's pretty serious stuff, so it occurred to me Moe ought to realize this and stop and thank his friend for listening and for all his help, just to take the edge off a bit. It's a small detail, but the moments where the story and the characters do what they need to do really keep me going.
DS: I don't mind waiting for ages between issues of a comic as long as I know they'll arrive in the end. What are your pet peeves regarding buying comics?
AB: Actually it's been ages since I've bought a comic. My pet peeves must have gotten the better of me. The lone comic shop in town is pretty fanboyish, so I don't see much of the cool stuff until I go to a convention or a big city. I do hate the idea of having to special order the books I want, like Black Hole or Schizo or something. There's no fun of discovery then. I'd rather buy 'em off the shelf from a better store.
DS: But if no one orders in new or alternative titles how are the shops supposed to know that the audience exists for it?
AB: Sure, but the people behind the counter change every few months and you have to go and re-explain that you want these weird comics, and the shop itself is so depressing...there's something sort of embarrassing about spelling out what you want to some creep in a Pokemon t-shirt who'd rather go back to his card game, you know? I'm sick of it.
DS: What would you expect to find in the perfect comic shop?
AB: A great minicomic section, a vast indy/underground back issue collection, lots of 60's Marvel & EC era stuff, and a generous supply of videos & DVDs from Asia. It would be right next to a good restaurant & music store.
DS: Is Last Wish in any way autobiographical?
AB: Yeah, streamlined and fictionalized. Emotionally true.
DS: Are you worried that your friends/family might see the connections?
AB: Well, anyone close to me knows where I'm coming from, so I bet they will. The results of that are up in the air, aren't they? I haven't tried to settle scores (tempting as that is) or embarrass or hurt anybody with the book so I hope for the best.
DS: Is there anyone of your friends/acquaintances/family that you don't want to show Last Wish to?
AB: No, but I'm in no hurry to get it into anybody's hands either.
DS: People often criticize autobiographical work arguing that it's lazy storytelling. How to respond to that sort of view?
AB: What good work isn't autobiographical to some extent? Last Wish isn't this sort of "1:33 AM...woke up, smelled socks, felt sad...must quit my job at the Tastee Freeze" autobio book that's just a collection of rants & diary entries, it's a real fiction book with editorial decisions and characters and everything. I think a journal-like autobio comic could be very interesting if done well, but that's not where my interest is. I'm taking life experiences and trying to shape them into a story that might be of some interest...I don't know what else fiction is supposed to be these days.
DS: Did art play an important part of your education?
AB: Yeah. I went to high school at this experimental school for the arts, which basically meant taking art classes half the day and regular classes the rest of the time. I squandered it horribly, but I learned a few things. I had a great fine arts teacher, he really emphasized life drawing and real nuts & bolts stuff. I got to paint and do photography, too.
DS: What was the name of this school, and what was the reasoning behind their approach to teaching?
AB: The School for the Performing & Visual Arts. The thing closest to any approach I remember was that they made you take a little bit of everything, drama classes, music, etc. The "school" was just a number of rooms in a regular high school, and we moved around from school to school until my class graduated. It wasn't really experimental in terms of any philosophy or anything, it was just the first such school in the area.
DS: What was the last think you read/saw that made you go "I wish I'd written that"?
AB: That's tough...nothing lately, but just about anything by Munoz & Sampoyo, Ivan Brunetti, or Thomas Ott would fit the bill.
DS: What sort of stuff do they do, and what about their work do you admire?
AB: I'm not sure what they're doing now, but Munoz & Sampoyo did some gorgeous crime comics in the 70's reprinted by Fantagraphics in a comic called Sinner. Very stark, expressionistic art with a beautiful, sad voice in the writing. Very rich work. Fantagraphics has published a few other books by them. They also print Brunetti's Schizo. It's an incredibly bleak, funny, upsetting, honest, beautiful comic. It's not for everyone - imagine the deepest black humor possible delivered by a sort of Woody Allen persona with a chainsaw and dynamite. And Thomas Ott is the newest to me. He does mostly wordless comics on scratchboard, they're usually tales of murder and revenge done with a wit and frustration that really grab me. And his art is just flawless.
Actually, I first found Thomas Ott's work in the local comic shop I was badmouthing earlier, so there you go - books and their covers and all.
DS: What is the worst experience you have had with printers/photocopiers?
AB: Actually I've had great luck with all the places I've had comics printed. I quickly learned to take as much of the work as possible out of their hands, and so far it's worked great. My worst experience would have been a night at Kinko's, where I was renting a computer to print out pages that I was going to take to another print place to get scanned & turned into a book (they couldn't take electronic files or something). I misjudged everything, my files took FOREVER to print out, and after several hours I'd racked up more than $200 in fees, with more pages to print out! But at midnight they had to shut down the store for remodeling and the guy behind the counter let me go without charging me. What a hero!
DS: What materials and equipment do you use when drawing your comics?
AB: I pencil with F pencils onto Strathmore 2 ply bristol. Then I lay plain old tabloid size inkjet paper on that, take it to the lightbox, and ink with FW ink and Series 7 Sable brushes. Then I shrink that down, scan in the pages, and clean it all up in my Mac.
DS: What does using the computer offer that you can't do with pen and paper?
AB: Flexibility. Undo. The vast majority of the work happens on the page, but a computer is like smart white out. You can swap panels, change the order of things, replace drawings that didn't work, and try different versions of things very easily. A computer makes color work very easy, too. I don't think all comics roads need to lead to computers, but I'm really comfortable with them.
DS: Describe for us where you draw your comic, ie where is it, what can you see round the room.
AB: I've got a great studio in my apartment. White walls, 3 big windows, dark hardwood floors. It's a big, very bright room. My 13 year old cat Joshua is almost always asleep on the chair next to my computer. There's a big closet that holds all my books and supplies, so things stay pretty neat. It's a good place to work.
DS: Does being a comic creator help you get dates?
AB: Any woman of quality is impressed by good comics, especially my girlfriend.
DS: Why do you use the comic medium to tell stories?
AB: I've always drawn, and I hate to say it but I've always loved movies, and I find comics are a cheap way to combine the two. Comics offer a vast canvas for someone interested in narrative and the visual arts, and you don't need to spend thousands of dollars on equipment or gather a team of people together to make them. Also, frankly, the field is small enough that with enough work and persistence you can hope to make your mark much easier than, say, the in film industry. I should add, what I mean about the "hating to say it" remark about movies is that I think the best comics aren't merely movie ideas on paper, but of course they have their own language and form unique to comics. I'd like to grow past this stage, but I've got to crawl before I can walk, you know?
DS: Is there much of a comic creating community in Ithaca?
AB: Not that I'm aware of. Although I think a guy who writes Superman lives here. We had Ithacon 2001 here this past week, but that's 99% dealers. If Cornell was an art school I bet there'd be more of a scene.
DS: Do comics belong in art galleries or libraries, and what is the reasoning for your answer?
AB: Sure. Aren't comics art and literature? I'd much rather buy real comics but since they come out so infrequently I'm beginning to think original art will be my next thing. I'll try & start my own gallery.
DS: How do you react to the opinion that comic creators and readers are Geeks?
AB: Loads of us are. There are good geeks and bad geeks...the differences are subtle. You know them when you see them.
DS: What's the worst piece of advice you've ever been given?
AB: Hmmm...I remember some of the worst advice I've ever given: once making popcorn with my little cousin when I was a kid, and we were out of butter and salt. I suggested we could just sprinkle water and some other spices on it, and it should come out about the same. I can see now I was wrong.
DS: What music would be on the Last Wish soundtrack album?
AB: A little Talking Heads, a little Frank Black/Pixies, some Nirvana. Certainly some greatest hits from the early 90's (the unspoken time the story takes place). Maybe Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson could do the score. I'd give Ang Lee or Wong Kar-Wai first dibs on directing. Ha!
DS: Is it fun working on Last Wish?
AB: Yes, but I have to really concentrate & work hard or it turns into drudgery. If I'm just working to kill pages I get discouraged very easily. But if I really stop & think about what I'm doing and sweat the details it gets very rewarding and fun.
Thanks for you time Adam, keep sending us your great work.
Readers can contact Adam at:
P.O. Box 3843
Ithaca, NY, 14850-3843
Shit Bunny: Adam said "That's funny".
If you have a comment or question about Small Press then feel free to contact me