Robert H Syrett Chats With SBC

Posted: Tuesday, April 11, 2000
By: Darren Schroeder

Cover of Robert H Syrett Chats With SBC

Sometimes people don't want to be interviewed. That's fair enough, one person's self promotion is another person's invasion of privacy, but the people who decline don't get off easy because I ask them to recommend other creators that I should pester. This is how I came to contact Robert. He harks from Menlo Park in California (USA). He didn't know me and I didn't know much about him. Here's what I found out:

Darren Schroeder: What is your full name?

Robert H Syrett, although I've been known as Robot to my friends since around sixth grade.

DS: Age?

RHS: 20

DS: Favourite web site?

RHS: There are many web pages that I would consider my "favorite" in different ways here are a few that I visit almost every day: - the reason's pretty obvious. - I subsist on the daily news items and the comprehensive information they catalogue. - almost always provides well-tempered reviews of obscure bands that I like. - is a great digital library of music.

For wackiness I think that:
are all fun for a quick visit.

DS: I'd have to agree with you there. Were comics a big part of your childhood or did you discover them at a later stage?

RHS: My brother bequeathed me a large stack of comics that I read as a kid. In retrospect, his selection was pretty interesting because the comics were mostly Warren imitations of the Old EC comics and the DC non-super hero stuff. Then in the early 1990's, there was that big comics fad where image became all the rage and everybody in my school was indexing the value of their comics collection with Wizard. I read those books for a few years, they probably weren't the best comics I every read and didn't contribute to my growth as a comics creator but they kept me tuned into comics until I got to high school. While in High school I discovered Woodring and Crumb and others and that was when I started having aspirations of being a comics creator in a fine art/ literature context.

DS: Was art an important part of your education?

RHS: Well, it still is. I'm an undergraduate at University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC), where I study Art (mostly print-making) and Electronic Music.

DS: What was the first comic you published yourself and how did that come about?

RHS: While I was a first-year student in high school, I went to a "underground comics" convention sponsored by a local comic book store. The owner lost a lot of money in the venture because he shipped out pretty much the best of the best and spared no expense (comic shops could do such things in the early 1990's). There were people there who I've never seen at conventions since, like Jim Woodring, and I was completely unappreciative of them. I just went around and got sketches from artists I would later emulate like a jerk fanboy. But I digress... At this convention there was a booth called "Be a Underground Cartoonist" where Lee's Comics had little forms that were basically designed to show you how to make mini comics. People would draw the mini comics at the conventions and then Lee's would xerox them for you and then sell them at their store. I made a pretty crappy one that was about a guy waiting in a metaphysically infinite line who has an out of body experience. I was really excited because my comic was being sold in a real store. I told all my friends to buy it, none of them did.

DS: Is there any common theme to your work?

RHS: I guess you could say (and I know this sounds pretentious) formal deconstruction and metaphysical transfer.

DS: How are these themes embodied in your work?

RHS: Usually there is a transfer in behavior, thought, or physical transformation between characters (examples might include a lizard that learns of the potential of the city by listening to a stone or a young robot taught the inescapable nature of his destiny from a camel submerged up to his neck in sod). In the execution of these mental transfers I attempt to employ non-traditional comics narratives (Recently I did a story illustrating the oral transference of music throughout the generations using medieval neunes and ligatures).

DS: Is the comic medium well suited to this practice?

RHS: As good as any. I greatly enjoy the comics medium, and it seems a little under represented as far as great works go or even boundary-pushing works. So I figure, if I happen to do anything ground breaking of memorable in my lifetime, I would like it to be in comics.
I borrow a lot from the narrative deconstructivists in avant-garde Japanese comics Like Garo and Axe, I really think the world of comics would benefit from translations of those comics into other languages.

DS: How did you distribute your comics?

RHS: I draw for the campus newspaper which is distributed throughout Santa Cruz (CA), I distribute them by going around to comics and record stores and asking them to sell them, I have a mailing list that I send stuff to regularly and Word of mouth.

DS: Do you find the shops are happy to deal with small press material?

RHS: They're all pretty suspicious, and you don't make money.

DS: What is the worst experience you have had with printers/photocopiers?

RHS: Well, I've been pretty lucky so far. No real horror stories, but once I blew $300 dollars on a big copy order to Kinko's Copies, where they didn't collate my comics and I'd already taken them to a different city when I discovered this (I guess that's my fault for not double checking their work). So, rather than hand assemble thousands of pages by hand, I just went to another Kinko's and remade the order myself and walked away without paying.

DS: What materials and equipment do you use when drawing your comics?

RHS: I've found that typing paper is good for drawing on, particularly when the drawings will eventually be reduced in size anyway. A good set of pens is indispensable, I like Pigma Graphic Pens and Rapidoghraph technical pens but I've seen people do amazing things with regular felt-tipped and ball-point. A good brush with good ink, I like Richeson Brushes and Calli India ink. None of this stuff is very expensive (except for the technical pens) but it becomes 2, nay 20 times more powerful when used in conjunction with Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop (obviously important as well is a fast computer, a quality printer, and a scanner ). I really have found that those two programs, when used properly, make life worth living. I use them for scaling, lay-out, halftoning, coloring, and lettering to a certain extent. All of these things would have seemed unfathomable to a small press guy like myself 10 years ago.

DS: The increasing use of programmes like Photoshop and others is making the placement of comics on the web a more practical proposition. Do you think there is any need to bother with the messy printing/stapling/posting process, or can comics just become a web based exercise?

RHS: Yes, there is need to bother. If an artist does not own a computer how else are they to express themselves but in the old ways. In addition, the physical copy has a more valued place in our culture. People enjoy the palpable effort it represents. Web content is, aside from being too low res, representative of a new medium in and of itself and brings into consideration whether comics published on the web are comics at all.

DS: Who do you see as the target audience for your work?

RHS: College students, the fine-arts community, literate comics readers, and occasionally really little kids.

DS: What work have you been doing recently?

RHS: I've been doing a series called Smiley Shadow with a few friends, a newspaper weekly called Food 2000, and I make a 17x11 Flyer that I post around campus that has comics content. Of these the newspaper weekly has the largest distribution.

DS: What comics have you read recently? Why did you like/dislike them?

RHS: I've been reading primarily other 'zines and mini-comics. Most of the stuff I read is generated by my friends and people I directly know. I feel this is important in developing a voice and cultivating a "movement" or "scene". That said, I recently enjoyed a comic by a friend's little sister for it's earnest non-ironic tone and for the enthusiasm it displayed. The content was on par with most of the daily strips that are nationally syndicated. I really hope more women and girls start drawing comics.

DS: What do think is the reason for the comparative lack of female creators?

RHS: The largest selling comics are marketed at boys.

DS: If a film was made of your life, who should play you?
RHS: I would play me, but it should be directed By Jean-Luc Godard or my friend Russell Schaffer.

DS: Are the people who call comics art out of their minds or what?

RHS: I'd say that comics are one medium among many, some are art(in a modern and/or post-modern sense of the term), others display craft and skill, some will become social artifacts (i.e., they are crap).

DS: What do you mean by the modern and/or post-modern sense of the term "art"?

RHS: In that anything created with aesthetic intent and consecrated by critics as being art. Nobody calls my comics art, therefore they are currently visual culture. I don't think Roy Lichtenstein thinks comics are art. But some are created for a fine arts context and are validated by the critics of that field. Some examples include Art Spiegelman and Charles Burns.

DS: Do you think there is any benefit to be gained by insisting comics be taken seriously as an "art form"?

RHS: Debating art is rather futile, though, if I really felt the need to justify comics as fine art I could go on a semi-incoherent rant involving tropes and signifiers and Duchamp's theory of art in the raw, but that wouldn't erase the subjective nature of peoples' personal definitions. I don't really know what benefits would come with being considered fine-art, better receptions maybe.

DS: Do comic creators have to worry about reaching a wider audience?

RHS: That's a rather ambiguous question. Do you mean reaching a wider audience than they do right now in order to become economically feasible again, or in order to attract new talent to keep comics alive?

DS: The question comes out of my thinking about the calls from some in the comics community that we have to strive to get our work in front of a wider audience. Strategies to do this include getting away from the cliched super hero image of comics, and presenting comics in a trade paperback format that is more bookshop friendly. While the small press medium usually does the former, it can't hope to achieve the latter unless people change the concept of what they want to achieve, which is associated with a change away from the personal expression that the small press format allows for. I'm interest to find out whether you think creators should change/rethink what they want to represent in comics in order to increase their possible readership?

RHS: I don't really enjoy super hero comics any more. I'm really bored with them and they seem like they have a pretty limited audience. It only seems natural that I should aim at an audience that likes what I like. The path to market of that audience is unfortunately nebulous. I can't help that, perhaps book stores are the way, perhaps they're not. I don't aim for a mainstream audience, nor do I desire it. I do not want to be a Steven Spielberg or even an Alfred Hitchcock. I'm perfectly willing to leave that to Paul Pope or Dave Choe (I think they both stand a good chance of catching on really big is the proper channel can be found to disseminate their works). I'd much rather be regarded as a Robert Bresson or a Chris Marker.

DS: I'm concerned that the art world critics might not know anything abut the rhetoric of comics, so are they the people we would want to judge examples of the medium; does getting their "validation" tell us whether it is a good comic?

RHS: No. I think Spiegelman is crap. The validation of the fine art world tells us nothing of the quality of a comic. I think that asking a semiologist whether a given comic book is good or not would yield more interesting results. But as far as recognition and canonization is concerned, fine arts critics do it better than book, movie, or music critics.

DS: Perhaps the creators you have mentioned had to say to themselves "Well, if I want this to be taken seriously I'd better make comics that are more like examples of fine art". Roy Lichtenstein took a few isolated panels and used them as the basis of an exercise in painting, and some comic creators seem to want to do the reverse and expect this to mean their work is the better for it.

RHS: Well, I certainly see no reason not to cross pollinate the IDEAS pertinent to the art world and the realm of comics. I think there is much to be gained from studying, oh say, John Cage and trying to use his heuristics in the process of creating comics. What is hollow and useless is when Art Spiegelman tosses a Picasso facsimile into Ace Hole: Midget Detective; nothing screams fine art like Picasso.

DS: Going back to your comment that debating art is rather futile, do you mean debating against it or about it? If it's the later, is making art futile?

RHS: What is useless is determining good vs. bad art or comics without setting up some basic parameters for the basis of such. I can't think of any parameters that uniformly clasp my taste, so I've given up good and bad for like and dislike. As Ivan Brunnetti once famously said, "All proponents want to prove the correctness of their ideologies, despite the fact that it is painfully obvious there are no absolutes"

DS: You can contact Robert at, or via:

DS: Robert Syrett, 510 Concord Dr, Menlo Park, CA 94025, USA

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