Thursday, 10 March 2011

An Interview with T.J. Kirsch (Part Two)

A potential cover for a potential collection. We're going to personally bug him until it becomes a reality.

When I told T.J. Kirsch that we were going to focus this second (and final) part of our interview on his education, the Oni Press-affiliated artist suggested that I should make ironic quote marks around the word. Far too humble, he has the unique experience of transferring from the Savannah College of Art and Design to the comics-specific Kubert School, and it seemed like too good a chance to pick his brains about the rarely-explored subject.

In addition to quizzing him about his University years, we force him to make like a stool pigeon and give up the goods on the latest She Died in Terrebonne print editions, as well as reveal the origins of his recurring Slim Johnson character. 'Education', ha!

Click here for part one.

As an artist, what do you think are the keys to creating a good detective story?

I'd say find a good writer! What you need is a solid story, and relatable, distinctive characters. Of course as an artist, I'd say the artwork end of it is pretty important too. Take a look at what guys like Chester Gould did: very distinctive characters, great storytelling, and gritty art that's at least grounded in reality. I draw inspiration from him as well as Jordi Bernet and his Torpedo work, but there's so many great examples of great detective comics. Of course you can't leave out all of the great Batman artists and guys like Will Eisner.

Speaking of detectives: what can readers expect to find in the latest She Died in Terrebonne print volume?

Well, funny you should ask! The latest issue of She Died In Terrebonne (#3) is back from the printer and available in the Agreeable shop! It's got the third act of the story seen online, as well as a great backup story written by Kevin [Church] and drawn by Eric Kim. It's a Sam Kimimura flashback story basically, involving Sam and his early days in the SFPD. Eric was a great fit for a Sam story and I think he did a really great job. I was going to draw it myself but I had a few too many things going on at the time. Plus, I'd just finished the main SDIT story, so a break from Sam Kimimura was in order.

A little birdie tells me that the complete Terrebonne collection now has a publisher attached to it...

Aha! Yes, we've somehow tricked a publisher into partnering with us. They're a small Chicago-based outfit called Nan bu Nan Publishing It's a boutique situation but they've got a handful of really quality authors and both the guys behind it, Rick Boven and Nick Vandermolen, are very enthusiastic and complimentary about mine and Kevin's work. So, the book's in good hands, and we've all got some work do on that, on the design and production end of things. It should be released sometime around late summer/ early fall if I'm correct.

You mentioned to me a couple of weeks back that you were thinking of compiling some of your solo material into a collection - can we expect to see that materialise any time soon?

That's very possible, yeah. I might put together a little collection in time for the Boston Comic Con in April. It'd probably include all my Top Shelf 2.0 strips and maybe some extra material. Thanks for reminding me! I've gotta get on that. I know most people probably haven't seen that first Slim Johnson story, so maybe that'll be in there.

That first Slim Johnson story: Office Bitch, from Fat Chunk 

What’s the history behind the Slim Johnson character?

At first he was just a one-off sort of throwaway character I came up with when I did a story for the Jamie Smart-edited anthology Fat Chunk. He's this Vietnam war veteran who's obviously been through some stuff, and he's trying to start over and find out who he is. He's clearly got some issues. I think I came up with the name on a whim - something that was funny but sounded like an everyman. Like a lot of R. Crumb's characters.

You mentioned earlier that you studied at The Kubert School. Am I right in thinking that you went to SCAD at some point?

I went to SCAD for a school year then took a year off. Then I went for three years and graduated from the Kubert School.

What made you make the leap to a comic-specific school like The Kubert School?

I don't think it was such a huge leap - just in terms of the curriculum anyway. SCAD was really expensive, and it was the first time I'd been away from home for that amount of time. I think maybe I was too young to really take anything seriously. I did well in terms of grades and things, but those don't really mean anything in art school anyway. The one quote I hear a lot about art school in general is "you get out of it what you put into it," and I was I think a bit too immature at the time. I think more than anything SCAD set me on the comics path. Plus, I didn't know it at the time but I was sick, too, but undiagnosed. 

I took a year off from school after that, then went to Kubert. It immediately felt like I was in the right place.

Toppled, written by Elton Pruitt and illustrated by Kirsch, can be read in its entirety, here.

Were you certain about what you wanted to do during your year off? Was it a long and torturous decision, or did you "just know" that comics were the thing for you?

Oh, I was pretty certain. At first I tried a local liberal arts college as a fine arts major, and all was all wrong for me. After being at SCAD, it was like going right back to high school. Plus the art classes were just about as slow as molasses. I think we did about 3 weeks of just mixing paints and getting your station in order before putting paint to canvas. I tried that for maybe a month and a half before leaving. At the same time I found a job as a parking lot attendant at an independent movie theater, which was great. It was either just me, or me and another guy in this booth out back. Nobody was supervising you so you could draw or write or play your guitar - whatever. You know I just remembered... I think I read an interview with Brian Ralph in the Comics Journal or somewhere, where he mentioned being a parking lot attendant and how it was the only job he had that he didn't completely hate. So remembering that quote, I jumped at the chance to do that job. I wonder how many artists have that type of gig...

That sounds like a dream job to me! 

It was pretty great, and it was pure luck finding it. I drew a lot of the comics in that booth, and read a lot of comics for sure. Plus, there was the free popcorn, soda, and coffee. AND free movies when I wasn't on the clock. I think I saw Ghost World a few times there.


Did you apply to Kubert via their famous in-comic advertising? What were your thoughts when you got there?

I think I applied to Kubert like everyone else. I KNEW about it because I had seen the ads since I was a kid. I heard horror stories about the workload and stuff like that. When I got there I made a lot of friends - it's hard not to when you're in the same room all day every day drawing next to the same guys. It's funny, I was just going through some old portfolios from that era and it's really funny how many assignments seem totally out of context and strange to the outsider, but at the time we're just trying to make each other laugh with every drawing... Some in-joke about a teacher or something along those lines.

What would your advice be to young cartoonists who are trying to decide between a "regular" college program and a more specific comics-based school?

Oh god. It really depends on the person. If you're serious about wanting to be a cartoonist and you don't want anything to 'fall back on' you should look into schools like Kubert or CCS, most definitely. If CCS was around a few years earlier I would've applied there, but I don't have any regrets. SCAD is also a great option, and now of course they've got their Atlanta branch up and running with some great talented teachers like Chris Schweizer, of Crogans fame. If you want a job after you graduate from a "regular" college, then get a degree in nano-future bots with a minor in fixing cars! Then do your comics by yourself. But really, if you're looking into any comics-related schooling, ask or email people that've gone there previously. That's the best way to find out how it really is, and if it's for you.

One of the nicest, most co-operative interviewees a comics blogger could ever hope to find, we'd like to offer T.J. a very sincere thanks for taking the time to chat with us. One of these days, we're going to hound him to talk about his wilder years as a drummer in a band. Until then, be sure to follow him on Twitter and buy every single in-print comic that he's worked on. Consider that an order!


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