Have you bought a comic book in the past few years? Not a graphic novel or some fancy anthology—I’m talking about those olde thyme flimsy, staple-bound periodicals filled with illustrated narratives and costing less than a bag of movie theater popcorn. It wouldn’t be a shock if you said no, and cartoonist Jordan Crane wouldn’t blame you– but he’s not giving up on the medium without a fight.
After years of creating resplendent illustrations, designing floral wallpaper for our favorite bookstore, and intermittently revealing his narrative brilliance through one-off comics, Crane has recently focused his creative talents on an Ignatz-winning (that’s geek-speak for “good”) comic series called Uptight. Presenting melancholy tales of workaday worries and broken relationships right alongside whimsical, child-friendly fare, Uptight provides a fascinating peek inside Crane’s constantly shifting thoughts, and never fails to entertain.
Read on to discover this venerable artist’s love for Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear, the challenges of cartooning for kids, and his call to revolution for a post-superhero world.
What are you working on these days?
I’m working on the fourth issue of Uptight, hoping I’ll finish by about December. I’m really, really working hard to get it out on a regular basis, you know? At least twice a year. It’s something I haven’t managed to do yet, but I’m working on it. This one looks like it’s gonna happen.
I think that’s one of the big problems with—or one of the things I miss—with alternative comics. Going to the comic book store and being able to pick up a couple of books each time I go. I don’t go that often, but God, at this point even if I just go twice a year there’s still not anything to pick up. Ten years ago, you could go three or four times a year and there’d be several new things to pick up. So I’m trying to do that for my own part. I’ll probably be putting some of this stuff up online, as well, while I work on it.
Are alternative comics in an ebb or a flow?
Well, there are a lot of great comics out right now. There’s certainly no shortage of really great cartoonists. There’s even a lot of interest in comics right now, that’s the funny part… but I think the way they’re distributed is getting in the way of people seeing them. I mean a lot of people—or at least as many as read them in the 80s and 90s. They’re just in a really weird place and it’s partly due to business junk.
First, there’s the recent emphasis on graphic novels– you have to pay like $15 to get one, so you really want to be sure it’s good, and then you’re committing to reading it… it’s not like the almost frivolousness of picking up a comic book, thinking “This looks good, I’ll buy it!” It doesn’t have the sort of immediacy it once did.
There’s only one distributor of comics now. It’s called Diamond. They’re the only people that distribute comics. So they kind of get to say what goes, and they recently made it so that anyone who sells less than a certain amount—I think it’s 2500 or 3000 copies initially—gets dropped.
A lot of my friends had their books cancelled. Apparently, Fantagraphics has a special relationship with Diamond, so I actually don’t have to worry about it. But a lot of comic quarterly books got cancelled. It was really horrible. All these great comics can’t even get into comic book shops now because Diamond isn’t distributing them. Unless the comic book shops are particularly savvy and smart… but even then, since Diamond’s not distributing them, the publishers are like, “Well, we can’t get that big sell.” There’s got to be a better way.
Surely, the medium will evolve and adapt.
That’s the thing, I’m sure it will. And that’s why I’m not particularly worried. I think it’s an extremely strong medium. So what if it’s not really popular right now? Long term, I’m sure it’ll survive… I hope it does—it’s what I’m meaning to do for the rest of my life, so I hope it kicks in some time!
Do you think about your audience when you’re writing? The Clouds Above and Col-Dee, for instance, deal with childhood from completely different perspectives. Is Clouds Above a children’s story, or are you adopting the language of childhood as a stylistic device?
When I’m writing something I usually have a particular person in mind that I’m writing it for. Not a general thing like “I’m writing for someone between the ages of 25 and 50” but rather an actual person.
First of all, I think that people are more alike than they are different. So let me start with that premise. When I’m writing, I kind of use the guide that if something reads as pertinent or good to me, that other people will like it too. I’m pretty confident in using my own editorial voice for other people. So first and foremost, it has to pass my own brain. If it’s good, good. I don’t dumb anything down.
That said, when I’m working on it, I sort of envision telling the story to a specific person. And usually it’s someone of my immediate family, because I know them very well. It’s good to entertain them. I’m happy when they’re happy. With Clouds Above, I imagine I’m telling a story to my children. And some of the jokes alternate between one or the other, like “I know my boy will enjoy this joke. I know my girl will enjoy this joke or this turn of events.”
The thing I like about doing it that way is that it answers practically all of my questions. And picturing making it for this specific person makes the story, to me, very much more intimate. It actually helps me to take risks and fills in a lot of details for me that I wouldn’t otherwise think of filling in. It also helps get rid of a lot of crap. It’s very easy if I can look at something and say, “Oh, no. She would hate this.”
That said, with Clouds Above, I’m like, how comfortable do I feel putting curse words in here for my daughter? And I would have to say, that if it worked in the situation… then okay! Good. Personally, I don’t mind if my children swear. That’s my own perspective on things. Now I know other people do, and we have a sort of arrangement worked out. But, by and large, in Clouds Above, there’s really no need for swearing. So I don’t particularly put it in there.
When I first started to write, it was more of just me thinking, “What would be cool? What would work? What would best express this idea?” It was very… I don’t know if “sterile” is the best word for it, but there was this kind of field around it. It was isolated from a human concern. Whereas now, writing for people, it makes everything so much more real and tangible.
Do your son and daughter read comics, aside from your own, on a regular basis?
Oh yeah, they do. Usually when I go to comics conventions I buy up a whole lot of reader copies of old comics like Little Lulu and Casper and a whole bunch of the Classics Illustrated comics. A friend of mine got me a copy of the Herbie collection that Dark Horse put out, and they love Herbie. And then of course, we go to the comic book store and they buy a bunch of comics there. I pretty much let them get whatever they want, but then, Jesus, half the stuff they get home, I go, “Oh my God, they can’t be reading this! This is RACY!” So in those cases I pull it out of the general circulation, but they usually still get a look at it.
Are they also into traditional children’s books?
My daughter is just learning how to read chapter books. So she’s read a couple of Goosebumps books, and just yesterday she came home with a copy of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat that she had pulled out of a trash can. It was illustrated by Quentin Blake. She and I have read together a lot of the Roald Dahl books, and Blake illustrated all of those, so that’s why she picked this one up. I was like, “Oh look, it’s that illustrator!” and she said, “Yeah, the same one who did Roald Dahl.” And I was like, “Man, you have a good eye!” I was very happy about that. She’s a nerd in making!
Do you ever read them any Maurice Sendak books?
Actually, my favorite Maurice Sendak books are not the ones he wrote himself, but the Little Bear books. So we’ve read all the Little Bear books many, many, many times over. And Where the Wild Things Are, of course, but that’s usually a little too short for them, they want more reading time. If we pick that, then we have to pick two books, and then that’s a very dangerous proposition, because what if one of the books is SUPER long? It becomes sort of a bargaining thing. Where the Wild Things Are is more of a daytime read, something that they can cruise through on their own. But the Little Bear books are nice and meaty, and we’ve read them a million times.
Do you think Maurice Sendak has influenced you at all, artistically?
You know? I do. He has been one of my favorite artists, probably from the get-go, as far as illustration. I remember as a kid—it’s funny—I was very drawn to Where the Wild Things Are and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs: one of which looks like it has a pretty good movie coming out, and the other looks like a [redacted]. I don’t know what it has to do with the book except for the fact that food is falling from the sky. As a kid, it was that and an Arnold Lobel book called Mouse Soup that I was very drawn to. And then later, when I rediscovered those three things, it was like unearthing gold or something, just this vague distant memory from my childhood and then seeing it and going “That! That’s the one right there. Awesome.” When I had kids, and I was eBaying for Maurice Sendak, I found the Little Bear books and that was a pretty amazing discovery as well.
I wish I could say the way he draws has influenced me more, but I could never even approach drawing that well. I mean, it’s just amazing. He has this very gestural, almost carefree-looking line. It’s a pretty astounding line. I think I’m a little more cautious with my line, I go for more of a simple line and I’ve never been able to swing such intense cross-hatching. But his work is definitely right up there in the pantheon.
Have you ever thought about making a children’s book of your own?
I have! And I’ve got a bunch of preliminaries written. I was trying really intensively for the first couple years after my kids were born to get a kid’s book deal at one of the big book publishers. It’s this weird balance of almost removing plot and just having a device that runs on, and it depends really heavily on the illustration. I could never quite make it simplistic enough. Where the Wild Things Are is seriously one of the most perfect children’s books, because it’s super simple—practically nothing happens. He goes to this land, there’s this kind of crazy stuff with the monsters, and then he goes home. That’s all that happens. There’s no comeuppance, I mean, there is a conclusion, but it’s a real simple thing that happens and it’s wide open to a lot of different readings. The book is actually fairly meaty, but that’s the hard part. You can’t approach it saying, “I’m going to write a substantial children’s book!” Because then it just comes off as shitty.
So it’s this very delicate balance, and I have not yet done something that I’m happy with, that I feel would benefit the world of children’s books. God, there’s just an abundance of dull children’s books. And there’s an abundance of copies that are very obviously this thing slightly mutated into something else. It’s a form that I really enjoy and appreciate, and I would really like to do one—but I guess my main focus is comics, and I never really got enough into that world where I knew enough about it. It was just me calling up one of the two editors I know and sending them stuff and going, “Well, what do you think??” And them going, “Yeah, well, you know… children’s books about the moon are kind of too done. There’s too many of them.”
I’m sure you’ll crack the code one day and create a rad children’s book to compete with all those dull ones.
I think it would be super fun, and if anything, I would have no problem filling it up with really awesome drawings. Because that’s the most fun part, just doing all of these crazy drawings, and each page is a beautiful thing. But you know, whatever. I can do Clouds Above, and that’s more in a language I understand, that of a comic story.
Which, by the way, Clouds Above is a f****** pain in the ass to read to kids. It’s better after they know how to read. When my kids were young, I tried reading it to them, and you just have to turn the pages so damn fast! They were like “Yeah, yeah. Okay. Let’s go read something else…”
“But… I drew this!”
“Papa drew it! It’s nice.”
“Yeah, it’s really nice. But let’s read something else.” And I’m like, aww… I know you’re not trying to hurt my feelings. I’m not going to mope.
But now that my daughter’s older, I let her read the latest installment, and she really liked it. That was awesome. She was actually laughing at it and having all the right responses, and she was really into it, so that was super cool. I’d honestly kind of given up on her and my son actually liking any of my kids’ work.
How did it feel to contribute to Simpsons Comics?
I actually had to ink it several times. Because it looked like Bart, but it didn’t quite look like Bart… and the problem with the Simpons is that we’ve seen them so many times that if there’s anything wrong, it’s immediately obvious and it just looks wrong. So it took me a long time. I still drew it in my style, but the lines had to be in the right places, or it just wouldn’t read right. So yeah, that was really weird—drawing and being like “Oh God, it’s off-model!”
When I graduated from college, I filled out a job application for Film Roman [The Simpsons’ animation studio], to try and be an inbetweener, so it brought back the horrible memories of that— just slaying over the character sheets and trying to make them look right, and failing miserably. And I later discovered they were like, “Inbetweeners? Are you kidding me?? That’s China!” That was how little I knew. But it was a lot easier now, after ten years of drawing professionally. Easier, but still rough.
My contribution is a parody of a Robert Crumb strip where this guy takes a toke off a pipe and his face melts. That’s basically all that happens, and it’s called “Stoned Agin!” And this one is called “Blurst Agin!” Bart Simpson takes a toke off his bubble pipe, and his whole face kind of bubbles up and then pops, gruesome Halloween bubbles and everything. Super basic, but I just thought it was fitting. [In Mr. Burns voice] “It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times!”
Will this issue effect the impressionable minds of budding comic book fans and create a new generation of introspective, abstract comic lovers?
Oh God! God, I hope not. See, here’s the thing: I don’t like introspective, abstract comics. And as much as, perhaps I’ve done those myself, and perhaps my friends have done those, it’s more trying to make actual good work and just failing. You know? So I’d prefer that it’d inspire a whole generation of cartoonists who can actually write well and do good work. I mean honestly, bad fiction is introspective and abstract. And good fiction, I guess has that element of introspection, and it does have an element of abstraction, but it’s also very concrete and satisfying.
Well, I think I appreciate your version of failure more than whatever’s succeeding right now in the comics world.
That’s nice of you to say. Thank you. Frankly, I do too. I go to the comic book shop and I don’t know what the **** is going on. I’m still ******* boggled that it’s superheroes that are in there! Who gives a shit about all these superheroes? I mean, when I was a kid I liked Batman, and that’s fine. Batman’s cool. I don’t have a ******* thing for Batman anymore, though. Like, so what?? It really boggles my mind. It blows me away. And there’s like, new superheroes, and there’s zombie Marvel or whatever—I’m like what the ****? Who is buying this? I really hope that now that Disney has bought Marvel, they’re going to go “Hey, we’re losing money on these ‘comic booklets.’ Let’s shut the whole branch down!” And that will be the beginning of the end, and comics as we know them will disappear. I’m serious, nothing but good can come out of that. Nothing but good.
There are some comic shops that I love, and they’re great places, and the owners to them are very dear to my heart—but that said, I don’t think there could be anything better for comics than for Marvel and DC to just disappear and people to have to decide at that point: do we give a shit about comics, or don’t we? And I think the answer will be yes, and in reality it’ll look a lot more like manga. Which is terrible in its own right—the vast majority of it is terrible in its own right, for the reasons that I hate television—but it’s at least more varied in its subject mater. I just can’t believe that it’s just dudes in ******* superhero costumes. That’s all it is! I would understand it was a bunch of bad stuff like there is on TV—at least there’s a wide range of shitty scenarios on TV, and there’s some good ones. And that’s how manga is. It’s mostly abysmal crap, and there’s some good things. And that’s what I would wish for comics.