Monday, 30 August 2010

David Brent, Brian Wilson & Harvey Pekar: an Interview with Joseph Remnant

So far, 2010 has been a good year for the humble floppy comic book. Superseded in profitability by the graphic novel a number of years ago, a diffuse yet committed new wave of cartoonists are revisiting the format, taking advantage of its unique potentials to engage readers. As creators like Michael DeForge and Noah Van Sciver have shown, there’s still plenty of life left in the old dog yet, and some of the best material in the industry right now is happening outside of stitched-spines and hardcovers.

Further aiding the cause is Joseph Remnant, the 28 year old creator best known for his collaborations with revered comics legend Harvey Pekar via Smith Magazine’s Pekar Project. Self-publishing his own Blindspot earlier this year, the comic is an illuminating look into the creative voice behind the earthy Crumb-influenced visuals that many of us are familiar with. Comedic in tone, with a healthy-dose of self-deprecation, it’s a mixture of fiction, biography and, at points, both pretending to be the other.

We’re big fans of Blindspot, so we invited Joseph to talk to us about the inspirations and decisions behind it, as well as his upcoming project: Pekar’s posthumous graphic novel Cleveland, which work began on before the American Splendor scribe passed away. Read on for talk of the comics, along with his thoughts on the pamphlet format, his relationship with Pekar, and his appreciation of the original BBC version of The Office and The Beach Boys. Sound like a blast? It absolutely is. 

First and foremost, why “Blindspot”? What’s the story behind the title?

I was a big fan of the original version of The Office and I was reading an interview with Ricky Gervais in which he was asked what made his character, David Brent, funny. He replied that it was the fact that he has such a big blind spot. He doesn’t realize that he’s an idiot, and actually thinks he’s really cool and funny. It’s that separation of reality that makes him funny.  For some reason that stuck with me. Plus, I like that it’s sort of a vague title that could be openly interpreted.

Your tongue-in-cheek introduction to the comic suggests that you do still believe the humble old comic book to have its place in the graphic novel-dominated indie comics landscape. Why did you pick the format?

I just personally like the format. It feels more real and solid than just putting everything up on the web, but I don’t even like burnt cds or mp3s. For some reason, I don’t feel like I own the actual piece of art until I’m holding the official packaged object in my hand. These other formats seem more like I’m just testing something out to see if it’s something I’d like to eventually buy, which is fine and has it’s place, but it’s just not as satisfying for me. I think it’s good to have work on a website, but especially when you’re starting out it’s important to have a physical object that you can carry around with you and hand to people in person and take to conventions and have a presence in real stores. I like graphic-novels too, but they take a long time to finish and I think it’s good to get stuff in front of people more than once every two years.

I recall Noah Van Sciver, a fellow supporter of the floppy comic, casually labelling his work as being part of a “new old school alternative”. What are your thoughts on this label? How would you describe your own work? 

My work is certainly influenced by both the underground cartoonists of the sixties and seventies as well as the ‘alternative’ cartoonists that started in the eighties and I see the work that Noah and myself and a few other young cartoonists are doing as a continuation of that. I think the label ‘independent’ cartoonist is probably the best way to label what we’re doing. Just like there’s indie music and indie films, cartooning has it’s own branch of artists who are just trying to get their own vision on paper and create exactly what they want to create with no concern for what a mainstream audience might want to see. Aesthetically, my own work is closer to the original underground comics movement in which there was more of a focus on drawing itself, but for subject matter I draw from a wide variety of both comics and non-comics influences. 

It’s clear that R. Crumb is an influence, as can be hinted at in your art as well as a direct reference in No One Ever Said It Would Be Easy. Who/ what else do you consider your inspirations?

Visually my two biggest influences are Robert Crumb and Chester Brown, but beyond that I really enjoy Dan Clowes, Joe Matt, Vanessa Davis, Noah Van Sciver, Adrian Tomine, and Seth, whose book, George Sprott, was by far my favorite book of last year. Outside of comics I’ve been inspired by people like Woody Allen, Ricky Gervais, Paul Feig and many others. But my latest obsession is a radio show called The Best Show on WFMU with Tom Scharpling, which is so strange and funny and unique that it’s really impossible to compare to anything else going right now. My wife hates it because I almost always have an episode from the archives playing while I work.

You’re best known for your work with the late, great, Harvey Pekar, both as part of The Pekar Project, and as the artist of the upcoming Cleveland. Whilst paying tribute to him, you expressed your gratitude for him giving you a “big break in a profession where it’s really hard to get one.”. Please tell us a little about your experience with the man, and the effect it has had on you as a creator?

It was an honor working with Harvey because he’s such a big part of why I even started drawing comics and one of the main reasons that comics are even respected by an adult audience today. He was often referred to as a curmudgeon, but I never really had that experience with him. He was always friendly and to the point when I talked to him. The last conversation I had with him he called me up and said, “ So are you gonna send me your book or what?!”. Somebody had told him that I had made this comic and he wanted to see it. I sent it to him, but unfortunately I never got to hear back about it. I guess what I took away from his work the most was that stories didn’t necessarily have to be exaggerated or be wacky or shocking to be entertaining. Harvey’s comics were more just about what it feels like to be alive and sometimes that can be the most relatable and entertaining approach to take.

Pekar is famed for his eccentric methods of correspondence with his collaborators, and you’ve stated that you were mailing him stuff every few weeks due to his refusal to use email. How has the process of working on the book changed in the time since his passing?

Well I’m mainly just working with my editor Jeff Newelt now, who is also the editor of The Pekar Project and we have a good relationship. I’ve also recently been in contact with Joyce Brabner and she’s offered to help with finding reference material and eventually promoting the book when the time comes. Fortunately, the script was completed so it’s all still Harvey’s words that we now get to bring to life.

Appearing in Blindspot, "Ace Goddard, Livin’ Legend" is the start of a longer story that you’ve stated you plan on making your next graphic novel project after Cleveland. How did this character come into being?

Ace Goddard is a truly pathetic, washed up rock star that I think slowly formed in my head after watching way too many terrible VH1 documentaries and from the experiences that I had playing in bands and just being obsessed with music when I was in high school and college. There’s often this common trajectory in a pop musicians career where they’re huge for a moment and then never have an inch of success beyond that, and it’s mainly because most of the music actually is really awful. Ace Goddard is a story about that kind of guy from the eighties and his life after success in today’s world, where you’re just as likely to be famous for being in a reality dating show as being a musician. 

One of the most appealing things about your work is your characterisation, both in the expressive quality of your dialogue and the way you manage to make even the most heinous piece of shit identifiable and sympathetic. Do you draw upon people in your own life when writing?

Not in a very specific way. I often see or hear things throughout the day that will trigger an idea for a story. However, the situations in every story are almost all fictional and are made up to get a specific idea or opinion across. Like the story “Truths with a capital T,” is a conversation with myself and a friend at a record store in L.A. The whole scenario was made up, but I’ve had similar conversations with several different people at different times before. The story itself is mostly created just to  get a point across in an entertaining way. Not that every story has to have a point. With dialogue, I end up having a lot of conversations with myself and just really trying to imagine how people would respond to each other. That’s really the fun part for me.

What can readers expect to find in Blindspot 2?

I’ve finished a couple of stories from it already. One about a disgruntled grocery store worker, another about more losers trying to pick up on girls, and I have several ideas for little short stories that are all only a few pages long. I’d like Blindspot to be something that’s always a variety of short stories like those early issues of Eightball and the old Underground comics. I don’t know if the Ace Goddard story will be a part of that because I may try and do it as it’s own book after I finish Cleveland.

What’s your favourite track on Pet Sounds?

This is an impossible question because every track works together to create a truly perfect album (perhaps with the exception of Sloop John B.)  However, a definite standout for me is Don’t Talk Put Your Head On My Shoulder. There’s something about the aching sound of Brian’s voice and the string section at the end that’s so unique and haunting and beautiful, that it just kills me every time I hear it.

Our thanks go to Joseph for providing us with his insightful answers, as well as a good reason to dig out Pet Sounds.

Highlighting and magnifying the subtleties of social interaction as well as our inner dialogues, the stories in Blindspot don't so much create laughs as unearth them. Here, Remnant proves that he's a talented storyteller as well as an artist, combining the the raw, expulsive, human traditions of sixties and seventies comics with his own creative voice. We insist that you visit his website immediately and purchase one for $5 US as soon as now. 



  1. I think this is one of the best new comics of the year and a great debut for L.A. Cartoonist Joseph Remnant. I urge every serious fan of great alternative and underground comics to get their grubby little hands on their very own copy while you still can.

  2. That's right fuck boys... get 'em while they're hot