This is a transcript of the Oct. 8 edition of Working. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.
Jacob Brogan: You’re listening to Working. The podcast about what people do all day. I’m Jacob Brogan. For the last few episodes, we’ve been talking to some of the people who make Batman comics. We introduced you to a writer, a penciler, an inker, a letterer, and a colorist. In superhero comics, as you probably learned if you listened to those episodes, or maybe as you already knew, those are generally distinct jobs filled by distinct people, but that’s not always how comics are made.
For this episode we wanted to speak to someone who does all of those jobs, who makes every part of a comic. And as it happens we had just the right person here in the studio. Benjamin Frisch, who has been producing this season of the show and produces a lot of other terrific Slate podcasts, is also the author of a smart and weird graphic novel called The Fun Family. In this episode, he leads us through his working process, explaining how he scripts, draws, colors, and letters his own hugely personal and really accomplished comics. Then in a Slate Plus segment he discusses the links between making comics and producing podcasts.
What is your name, and what do you do?
Benjamin Frisch: My name is Benjamin Frisch, and I’m a cartoonist and radio producer.
Brogan: So we’re here today to talk about the first half of your working life, which is your job as a cartoonist. To begin, how did you come to cartooning. What’s your background? How does one become a cartoonist? That’s my question.
Frisch: I got into it in high school—I think that’s when most people do. I had friends that were also into it, and we drew a lot together, and I started reading a lot of comics and it seemed like a medium that—especially when you’re young and a teenager—it’s a medium that seems like at arm’s length, because you don’t need a production crew to do it. You don’t need a ton of money to do it. It’s like, “All I need to make this thing is the talent and the ability to do it,” you know. It’s like the barrier seems low, even though, actually, it turns out it’s really hard.
Brogan: What were some of the barriers that you had to surmount?
Brogan: Oh, so just the actual technical act of cartooning?
Frisch: The technical aspect of cartooning is so important. Cartooning sort of requires a knowledge of a much wider breadth of subjects than most forms of visual art. You have to know about figure drawing, of course, architectural drawing, perspective, clothing, fashion, design. There’s a lot more design in comics than people realize. It’s an extremely multidisciplinary form of art.
Brogan: We should say that one thing that I think probably defines your experience, defines that complexity of multilayered technical aspects, is that in the kind of cartooning you do, you’re—unlike some of the folks we’ve been talking to in previous episodes, episodes that you’ve produced, of the show—you write the story, write the script, you pencil it, you ink it, you color it, I think even letter it, by yourself. All of these tasks that in so-called mainstream comics and superhero comics are broken up into different baskets that, roles that are filled by different people, you’re having to do everything.
Frisch: Yes. I’m not opposed to breaking up the work, but I’d always felt, for my work, it’s pretty singular, and I kind of feel wrong ...
Brogan: To have other people do parts of it?
Frisch: Yeah, I guess right now I feel like, uh, I just want somebody to come in and do the hard stuff for me. Yeah, I feel like my work is also quite personal in a lot of ways, and I know what I am looking for, and I know how to achieve that. So, I’m probably the best person for the job.
Brogan: How did you train for that job?
Frisch: I went to college. I went to school.
Brogan: Where did you go to school?
Frisch: Savannah College of Art and Design.
Brogan: Which was also attended by one of our guests in the series, Deron Bennett.
Frisch: Right, yeah.
Brogan: The letterer that we spoke to, in the previous episode, attended that school, but what kind of ... they call comics their “sequential art,” this term that was popularized by the comics, theorist, and cartoonist Scott McCloud. But what did that mean? Studying sequential art? What were you doing?
Frisch: It’s a little bit broader than just comics, includes children’s book illustration and storyboarding and stuff. It’s art, which creates narrative through sequence, I guess. But mostly you’re just drawing a lot of comics and you’re studying both comics in other forms for the ways that they make narrative action happen. You know they think a lot about film. When you’re writing the comic, probably the closest equivalent is writing a screenplay, like a film screenplay. It’s much more like writing a film screenplay or a theatrical play than it is like writing a novel, certainly.
And you’re thinking about things like lighting, and cinematography, even if you’re not using it in color, you know, the way that you use blacks. It’s like there’s a reason why noir film is so influential on comics, because it’s just like this is how you put blacks on a page.
And you do writing, too. You sort of do a little bit of everything. And there’s just a lot of technical training, because, again, the barrier to entry for, especially mainstream comics, like the amount of skill required to draw a mainstream comic is incredibly high, not just because the competition is so high, it’s just the skill threshold is incredibly high. I can’t even draw that much. I’m a pretty competent draftsman, but you know I don’t ... I can’t draw all those muscles. Like, I don’t know where those go.
Brogan: And muscles are—if you’re drawing Batman, at least—what’s important, but not necessarily to what you’re drawing. You have different priorities.
Frisch: Right, yeah.
Brogan: In your work, can you talk us through some of the work that you’ve done since studying this stuff in college? What do you like to draw? What is this personal work that you’re creating?
Frisch: I mean the big thing is that I drew a graphic novel called The Fun Family.
Frisch: Published by Top Shelf. And that book is ... it’s drawn in a kind of cartoony style that is reminiscent of the work of Bil Keane in Family Circus. But it really goes into the psychosocial, dark side of those kind of cutesy stories of family life that explores really different terrain than anything you would find on the pages of a newspaper comic section.
Brogan: How did that work come about? What inspired you to work on this book, The Fun Family?
Frisch: I mean the thing that directly inspired the book was many, many years ago. They announced they were going to make a live action Family Circus movie, and I’ve been sort of academically fascinated by the Family Circus, for forever, and so I just like quickly jotted down, as a joke, like I was going to post it on Facebook or something, a joke about like, “This is what my version of the live action Family Circus movie is going to be.” And then I wrote this really long thing, just felt very inspired.
And then I accidentally deleted it, and then I kind of forgot about it for a couple of days, and was like, “Oh, that was actually kind of an interesting idea,” and that was probably about 50 percent of what the book would ultimately become. It was sort of a direct parody of The Family Circus. But it very much became its own thing, like I really see it as using The Family Circus and the style of The Family Circus, and sort of the world of The Family Circus, or the world that is implied by The Family Circus. Because you don’t really see anything of the world in those strips. And then kind of using that as a jumping-off point to explore things that I happen to be interested in.
Frisch: In the work that I both tend to be interested in and make, there’s usually some kind of postmodern friction between the form and the content of the story. And here it’s pretty literal, it’s a pretty light-looking book. It’s actually been confused for a children’s book, more than a few times. It’s not a children’s book. It doesn’t have any sex or violence in it, but it is emotionally themed for adults. And generating some contrast between those darker elements and the lighter art, I think is kind of fun and funny.
Brogan: That tension is very much alive in the book as well, I would argue, in that, to say the tension between the childish semblance of things and the adult themes that you’re treating. The sort of central narrative thrust of your story. That The Fun Family itself starts falling apart and the parents divorce, the mother ends up in these kind of cultish, obsessive relationships with therapists and gurus. The father, who was himself a cartoonist of a strip very much like Family Circus, falls into a deep depression, or a sadness cocoon, as one character describes it. And one of the children of the family, which I guess would be Billy in Family Circus, the Billy equivalent, I think ...
Brogan: It’s been a while since I read Family Circus ... has to sort of take on the role of the fallen paterfamilias, and starts drawing his own version of The Family Circus strip, becomes the sort of sole breadwinner as the rest of the family descends into bizarre forms of chaos. It’s a book about those tensions between childhood and adulthood, behind, between responsibility and this desire for freedom from the strictures of family itself. But it’s also, and this is what I’m building toward, a book about comics, in many ways.
I mean these, at least cartooning, the father again draws something like Family Circus, and the kid, Robbie, ends up drawing comics. His brother also at one point starts drawing comics. Art and the ways that we construct it, the ways we experience it, even in this kind of popular form of a comic strip is really central here. What was it that drew you to doing work that was at least partially about the kind of work you were doing?
Frisch: I always have loved really meta stuff. Charlie Kaufman is a really major influence on my work, and the way that I approach subjects. And part of it is because it just seemed natural for the form, but the reason that I like metafiction, generally, is because it allows you to sort of comment on the form itself. I think a lot of times when metafiction comes off as very self-indulgent, it doesn’t actually use the sort of metafictional frame as a means of exploring fiction in any way. This book is not nearly as metafictional as something like Adaptation.
Frisch: But one of the things that I homed in on early on is this idea. It’s like he, Robbie, the eldest son in this family, he understands his family through these comic strips. And these comic strips are not real, they are highly idealized versions of his family life, so he is understanding the world through art in the way that many of us do and creating stories about himself and his family via this comic strip, which isn’t actually true, and it’s then about him trying to reconstruct this idea of family from this false idea that he has from art.
I mean, I would say it’s really more about the way that we create stories out of our lives via art, rather than comics, specifically. It’s mostly just comics because the Family Circus has basically the same premise, and also it’s what I do, so it’s sort of what I know.
Brogan: You said earlier that your comics are personal for you in a lot of ways. I assume that, maybe not, maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know. We haven’t talked about this before, I assume that you are not the product of a family like that in The Family Circus, or The Fun Family. I mean it’s not autobiographical, let’s say, but are there other ways in which you find yourself drawing on personal life, as you make comics that are in one way or another personal to you?
Frisch: I think some of it is just, it can’t help but be personal, when you’re writing. The things that are probably most interesting happen to be things that you experience or feel in some way. I also improv sometimes, and that’s a very Freudian art form, and in that one it’s extremely explicit. Like, you just come out and then something happens, and all you have to pull from is your subconscious, but even when you’re writing fiction, like considered fiction, I think that also occurs. My family happens to be, like I grew up in the most stable family.
Brogan: When you talk about your work as personal, what do you mean by that? What you have, a lot of freedom, creative freedom, personal, technical freedom. You can in one way or another make the book you want to make, whether or not you can sell that book to a publisher is something else we’ll talk about in a minute, but when we talk about this work as personal, especially in relationships that are more, sort of a studio-based system, that we’ve been exploring for the last few weeks, what does that mean for you?
Frisch: When I was learning to draw comics, and I was first reading a lot of comics, and this is still true, autobiographical comics were very popular. And in some ways, I think my work is in reaction to that, in the same way that most artists’ work is in reaction to something that they did not like, I guess when they first started, and so I’ve always resisted being explicitly autobiographical in my work, and when I wrote the first draft of The Fun Family, it was much less personal.
And it wasn’t until I had actually sold the book, I had drawn the first 30 pages and I had sold the book, that I decided I needed to go back, because there was something that the ending, I just didn’t feel true, I guess. And I kind of decided, “I just have to put myself into this more,” and so a lot of the neuroses around work and art in this book, the things that Robbie goes through, very much come from my own psychology. I mean, just the big question of the book. Like the big question, I think, the way I see it, the big question of the book is around the concept of happiness.
Like, which is preferable: false happiness or true misery? Like, it’s a question that I think and philosophize about a lot. Robbie comes to a decision on that question at the end of the book, and I think that it’s probably an answer that I don’t like, but I think is probably true. I don’t know, it’s like it’s hard because it’s not explicitly personal. There was almost nothing in this book, besides some very stray references, that actually transpired in my life. It is personal in idea and emotionally very personal, but it is not materially personal. I don’t know if that makes sense.
Brogan: No, I mean, you talk about identifying with or putting some of yourself into some of the struggles that Robbie, your character, goes through. One of those struggles is his attempt to draw like a grown-up, to draw in this professional, clear, cartoony style that his father employed. He’s at once trying to replace and become his father in those moments, which I assume that part is not your own psychology working, but ...
Frisch: I mean the struggle to be better.
Brogan: But the struggle to be better is part of what’s central to this.
Frisch: Yeah, and artists, especially, those of us who don’t have extreme virtuosic talent from the beginning, that’s always feeling like you’re not good enough at this. Because, like again, the skill ceiling in comics is so high. I mean, you can go on, you know, Tumblr or Instagram now and just find the most incredible art, like these incredibly beautiful drawings. And it’s so easy to feel like, “I will never measure up to this.”
Brogan: That’s true in any form of creative production, I think.
Frisch: Yeah, yeah. But there is something so explicit about when you know how to draw, and you know what something should look like, and if you have good taste, you know why something is great and looks great, and then you see yourself unable to achieve that thing.
I suppose, yeah, that’s common to all forms, but in drawing it just feels very, very explicit, because I can just look at the way that somebody draws hands. Hands are one of the most difficult things to draw, like it takes years and years of practice to be able to draw a hand without having to really think about it and even then it always looks terrible. Hands are really hard. And you can just see the way somebody will just dash off a hand in, like, three lines, and I’ll be like, “Mmm, I hate you.”
Brogan: But that’s what you’re working toward.
Frisch: Yeah, I mean, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that like, it’s OK ... it’s OK, and I don’t have to be able to do that. I draw competently. I draw, and I ...
Brogan: I’d say better than competently.
Frisch: Like, I think that I’m like, yes, I draw pretty well. I think my backgrounds are nice and I’m really good at visual communication. Like my drawings are not super-fancy or flashy. But they are extremely clear and communicative, which, for comics, more than something like illustration, is really, really important. If you can’t understand what’s going on, then you have basically failed as a cartoonist.
Brogan: Let’s talk about the process in a little more detail. You talked about selling the book based on, partially it sounds like the script, the finished script, as well as a 30-page chunk, but what’s the actual sequence for you? Did you write a draft of the full script before you started drawing, or is there another way around?
Frisch: Yeah, many people work in different ways. I tend to put the idea in writing first. And so I had a finished version of the script and I knew the editor of Top Shelf, Chris Staros. He was aware of the project, I had met with him once before, and so he had seen some of it, and then I just sent it to him, and he’s like, “Let’s do it.”
Brogan: What did the script look like and did you ... Is it just dialogue or are you giving yourself elaborate descriptions of what you’ll eventually be drawing?
Frisch: It looks a little bit like a film script. I write somewhat minimally. What I will do, is I write page to page, because I know that I’m the only one touching this ... I don’t have to be super-explicit.
Brogan: What do you mean by “page to page”?
Frisch: So I write one page per page of comics. For me the general unit of comics is the page. It’s not the panel. And so what I do is, up top, I write a paragraph, usually, that’s just like everything that happens in the page. Try and make sure it’s not too many actions. If you have five or six panels on a page, or think that, like, that’s about the amount of panels you’re gonna have, you’re only gonna have five or six actions.
And then below that I just list the dialogue. And I write in a way that I rarely get super-attached to specific things. I rewrite through the lettering phase. One of the nice things when you letter your own comics, if something doesn’t quite sound right, you can just change it, in the lettering, so, like, last-minute. That’s one of the advantages of doing it yourself.
Brogan: So are you, in the scripts, already thinking about panel layout and organization? The shape of the total page?
Frisch: Not really. I think some better, more visually, or more dynamically minded cartoonists probably are. I’m basically just thinking about how to get through this story, like how to make this, like the broad arcs work. I’m thinking, you know you have different units of time in comics. You have a panel, you have a page, you have a scene, and you have an act or a book, or whatever.
And usually I’m thinking about, from beginning to end of a scene, something has to change, emotionally, for the characters involved, so how do we get from here to there? And if I start thinking about like the minute detail of how one character is going to get from this part of the room to the other part of the room to do this thing, then I will freeze up, and I will stop. Like I cannot get that granular, I really just have to keep it broad. And then I don’t actually even think about that until the day that I am penciling that page.
Brogan: What is that part of the process like for you? Do you sit down in the morning, pull out a piece of paper, and start working?
Frisch: Yeah, what I’ll do is I’ll usually draw directly on my script. There’s always a lot of extra space on my script pages and so I’ll just draw thumbnails, which are very small planning drawings, and I’ll just do a bunch of those and figure out what I want the layout of the page to be. Usually there will be one action on the page, which will be the most important action, or the most dramatic, or the most emotionally important. That’s probably going to be the largest panel, and then you just plan around that.
Brogan: So you are in some ways drafting, storyboarding, or something along these lines?
Frisch: Yeah, I do not spend a ton of time in that phase. Some artists will actually lay out an entire book. They will rough out an entire book, before they even start. To me that is crazy. I mean, God bless them, I can’t do that. Drawing is too hard, especially that stuff. What I like to do is I have a small idea and then once it makes sense in my mind, I will just go and I will draw it, onto the page.
Brogan: What kind of paper do you draw on?
Frisch: I use a Canson paper that’s actually made for drawing comics. I think it’s called Canson Fanboy, which is the worst name.
Brogan: That’s a pretty terrible name.
Frisch: Canson, if you’re listening, please change the name. It’s really good paper: it’s not too toothy, but it has a little bit of texture on it, which picks up the kinds of pencils that I use very well. And I just really like drawing on it. It also has blue-lined marks on it that tell you what the live area of the drawing will be, and it will also show you the halfway points and the thirds, which makes drawing panels easier.
Brogan: Because you can think about ... you have a guide to the amount of space that ...
Frisch: Yeah, the less amount of measuring and math in my life, just the better. I’m very, very bad at math. Like, really, I’m not playing when I say that I’m bad at this stuff. And just like having those guides, it allows me to think about it visually, rather than having to actually do any calculations in my mind. Yeah, it’s convenient and it works, and I end up scanning those pencils anyway, so it’s not a big deal that it’s not on pure white paper because it’s not a finished piece of artwork.
Brogan: One of the biggest issues that we heard about from David Finch, the penciler that we spoke to, and Seth Mann, the inker that we spoke to in previous episodes, was the question of whether or not you ink, you know, put those kind of heavier lined weights on, digitally or physically. The folks we spoke to were mostly inclined toward a material inking with pens and whatnot. Sounds like you do it digitally, though, for the most part?
Brogan: No, OK.
Frisch: No, what I do is I scan. I scan my pencils and then I turn them into blue lines.
Brogan: So that’s something we heard about from some of our previous guests.
Frisch: We have a very—this was a very anti-blue-line roster.
Brogan: Yeah, why don’t you tell us again, in case, like me, we’ve forgotten what blue line is, exactly.
Frisch: So blue line is a technique where after you scan something, you take your penciled lines and then you turn them a very light blue, and then you print those out again, and then use that as a guide to ink on.
Brogan: So you’re not inking over your original penciled drawing.
Brogan: You’re inking over a printed copy of it, done in a slightly different color scheme that makes inking easier?
Frisch: Yes. So I have both original pencils and original inks, and the blue will scan ... is very easy to remove via a scanner when you’re done inking.
Brogan: How long does that whole process take. I mean, do you spend days working on a page or is it just a matter of hours? what’s the timing for you?
Frisch: I penciled about a page a day when I was drawing the book. I did all of the pencils at once and then I did all of the inks and all of the colors after that, which is not the most efficient way to work, probably, although maybe it is. I highly recommend it if you can do that, because it allows you to go back and make corrections earlier on.
The way that you draw characters will shift over the course of a 240-page book. I have early pencils that, “Oh, boy, those characters, they look weird, ” but by the end of drawing for 240 pages, you sort of get it down. And so waiting to ink all those pages until I was done with everything was great because then I got to go back and I would make corrections on my blue line printouts, to bring them back into the actual style.
Brogan: Did you have access yourself to the scanning technology, the blue line printer that you were using for this, or is that something that you have to, as an independent cartoonist, have to shop out?
Frisch: Oh, yeah, it’s just a printer, and I bought, it was a pretty cheap scanner, but it worked fine.
Brogan: It all came out?
Frisch: It has to be large format. But, yeah, that was no problem.
Brogan: Yeah. And then, OK, so you’ve gone through, you’ve penciled all of the pages, you’re able to go back, fix details from early on if you need to, as the style emerges, and I can see where that would be important for work, if you, the listener, can go and check out The Fun Family. You know, that kind of minimalist, cartoony style that you use, is that you have to make very subtle choices to distinguish some of the characters from one another. It’s all about the style of their hair and things like this, in many cases that help set the children apart when their appearing in panels together and lets you recognize their identities.
Frisch: Silhouette is really important for recognizing characters in a space.
Brogan: And I assume these are all things that, as you suggest, developed as you worked?
Frisch: I did, I actually came up with this ... I put together the initial pitch, the very, very first one, really quickly. And I did the character designs very, very fast and so they were actually not nearly as considered as I would be now, but it sort of turned out fine.
Brogan: Yep, it works.
Frisch: I got lucky on that one.
Brogan: It works. And then I guess you must scan it again after you’ve inked everything?
Frisch: Yes, so I ink by hand usually using brushes and technical pens, I do not like crow quill pen, like a dip pen. I’m very heavy-handed as an artist, and I tend to break those nibs and splatter ink everywhere.
Brogan: And you gotta start all over again, I assume.
Frisch: Yeah, and I’m just not super skilled in inking. I favor a much more European style, like what’s called a “ligne claire” style, or a “deadline style” now.
Brogan: If you’re ... if you the listener, are familiar with the work of Herge, the Tintin books, there’s this sort of Belgian cartoonist, emblematic of the clear line style.
Frisch: Yeah it’s basically when all of the lines are the same weight, and what that does is it sort of creates an equality between both the characters and the world in which the characters exist.
Brogan: It flattens the foreground and the background in relationship to one another in certain ways.
Frisch: Yeah, and then you use color to bring that out. In The Fun Family there is actually line weight around the characters, the backgrounds are all deadline, but I think that, that’s something that I would probably change, I would do differently, I think, if I were to do it again.
Brogan: Why would you change that?
Frisch: I’m not a great inker. I also don’t super enjoy inking. It’s not my favorite part of the job, and every choice that you make means something, narratively. In a deadline style it does create a sort of equality, that would have worked in The Fun Family.
Brogan: What about coloring, though? What’s that part of the process like?
Frisch: I don’t know, coloring is maybe my favorite part. It’s the part that I have the least anxiety about, because I know that I can always eventually make it work. I color in Photoshop. I color entirely digitally, and unlike inking I just sort of have a... I think I have just some sort of natural tendency to it, when you’re coloring, you’re really thinking about light, and there are rules to how light works. There are principles to how light works, to how shading works.
For example, if you have a hot light, like a light that’s yellow, your shadows are going to be some kind of purple, like you shade with a complement, the complement of the color, if you know anything about color theory. I guess to get technical, what I do is I flat the page first, which means that I am basically just putting in flat colors.
I use a couple of Photoshop plugins that saved me probably thousands and thousands of hours. They’re called MultiFill and Flatten. If you do coloring or cartoon work, I cannot recommend them highly enough. They now cost a little bit of money, but it is so worth it. Many people will hire somebody to flat their artwork for them, because you can’t just go into a page, you can’t just scan a black-and-white page, and then take the Paint Bucket tool and then just fill things in. You get these white halos around spaces that look really ugly. And oftentimes they won’t print properly.
You really have to prepare the page in a specific way, so that you don’t get those halos and then it will print nicely even if the black register is off a little bit. It will still look nice and correct and that’s why flatting is really necessary, and once I’m done flatting, you know, that’s when I say, “This apple on the table is red,” you know, “Robbie’s hair is a specific color of orange.” I have a swatch for his specific color of orange. And then once I’m done with all that, I start thinking about the light in the space and the mood in the space.
If it’s a very stressful scene, what I’ll often do is I will fade red back onto all of the colors and that achieves two effects. It creates a unifying effect among colors so they all have some red in them. And then that looks more natural, like those colors belong together. So just visually it looks more correct, and then also it casts a mood, right? If it’s not a super-stressful scene or a super-emotional scene, I’m just thinking about what the environmental light is like. I color pretty naturalistically.
Brogan: It seems like you must be thinking about that as an issue of page design as well as panel, and sort of, scene construction.
Frisch: I should be.
Brogan: Well, I’ll tell you, you do. There’s a page near the beginning of the book, for example, the beginning of The Fun Family, where I think the family is sitting around a dinner table, everything is really bright, so these first four panels, the first two-thirds of the page are really light. We hear a phone ringing. Robbie, I believe, goes to answer the phone, and gets this automated call that his grandmother has died. And those lower panels subtly are this much darker shade. It’s naturalistic, it’s part of the scene, he’s in another room, where the lights haven’t been turned on, but it also cues us to that tonal shift that’s about to happen in the lives of this family, that we’re going to experience for the rest of this book. The shift that has presumably been building for a long time, but that leads them to reach their breaking point in the pages that follow. That’s something that you do with incredible efficiency and subtlety, I think, through coloring in that moment.
Frisch: Thank you. Yeah, and it’s not all conscious. I mean, that is totally true, but I don’t even remember if I was thinking that at the time. But it’s true.
It’s also that when you draw comics, comics move left to right, and then up to down. And you want to draw panels that encourage your eye to move in that natural way. You’re not just drawing whatever you want in every individual panel, like you try and create a flow around the page, and oftentimes it just sort of happens because you’re used to it, and you sort of internalize that stuff. It’s sort of like now when I watch a movie by a great director or something I try not to prescribe really strong intents to everything, like sometimes I think good artists just kind of feel it, and it works. It’s not necessarily totally conscious.
Brogan: Yeah, the effect is there whether or not the intent is, ultimately, presumably what matters. Last step, presumably for you before getting stuff ready for publication, is lettering, right? You do that all digitally as well?
Frisch: Yeah, I’ve only ever lettered one comic by hand and it was a disaster. I ended up re-lettering it, and then the comic was ultimately rejected. It was ...
Brogan: I shouldn’t laugh. I’m sorry.
Frisch: No, it’s OK. It’s still really cool-looking. I actually really like the lettering in it now, but, when you are lettering as you go, it’s much harder to change things, and I really appreciate the malleability of having that last moment when you’re lettering, to just change things.
Brogan: Do you do the lettering in Photoshop as well?
Brogan: So, one of the things we learned from Deron is that illustrator has some flexibility with the way that he can create word bubbles, or, I think, word balloons. Do you use preset balloons or are you drawing your own, making those kind of subtle shifts that he described?
Frisch: I always do my own balloons. I hate balloons that look circular or perfectly ovular. I think those look really wrong on a comics page. What I do is I will make an oval, and then use the Bezier curves.
Brogan: What are those?
Frisch: Oh, God, in vector art programs, you’re generating shapes and those shapes, curves are defined by something called a Bezier curve, and it has these handles that you can pull out and change the pitch, I guess, of the curve. And so if you draw an oval in Illustrator, you generate an oval, and then start messing just a little bit with those curves, so it’s not perfectly ovular, it just looks much, much more natural, but I will usually place the letters first on the page, and then draw the balloon under it, so that I just know that I have enough space. You know sometimes I’ve written too much and I have to cut it down so I can fit it in the panel. But yet another advantage of—
Brogan: Of doing it all yourself?
Frisch: Well, of lettering last, at least.
Brogan: Sure. Do you spend a lot of time thinking about things like fonts?
Frisch: Not a ton. I do I draw a lot of my own sound effects. Like I will draw those actually into the art of the page, but for the actual dialogue, not a ton. I sort of wish that I did. I know I have friends that are incredible letterers and their work has this, like, it has this kind of literary, I don’t know. It feels very different to read a hand-lettered book, but my dialogue is not flowery, it’s pretty straight to the point, and I feel like that’s pretty appropriate for the kind of lettering that I’m doing. If I was writing, you know, captions and dialogue with a lot of flourish, and sort of stylized dialogue, I might change that.
I think it’s really important to consider the way that you are presenting the work to the content of the work, so there’s definitely a reason to consider those kind of fonts and to hand letter. It’s just for this and for my purposes, it wasn’t necessary.
Brogan: And certainly in a book with this sort of richly colored, but simultaneously sort of rigorously spare cartooning style that you’ve employed, getting too complicated there might have actually been distracting, might have taken away from the simplicity, precision of the art itself.
Frisch: Right. I also think it’s more appropriate to the book. It’s a pretty standard comic book lettering font that looks like the kind of lettering font that you would see either in a newspaper comic or a Marvel comic, which I feel is appropriate to the subject matter of the book. Although I did choose early on upper case and lower case letters.
Brogan: As opposed to the thing, which is something that we haven’t talked about before, but is quite common in comics, which is that everything is upper case.
Frisch: Yes, I feel pretty strongly about, like, upper case and lower case letters.
Brogan: Why is that?
Frisch: I don’t know. I just think that all upper case letters work great when it’s, like, Hulk Smash, but when you’re actually dealing with nuances, that’s just not how we read. That’s not how we read dialogue in books, and maybe more and more, now when we communicate in all caps, we have other associations that we pull from things like social media, from texting, like it just comes off as unsubtle, I think. And it may not have come off that way prior to the 1990s and the rise of people that had caps lock on the internet. But that’s always felt odd to me.
Brogan: Yeah. We don’t always need to be shouting in our comics.
Brogan: Yeah. What about editorial intervention? Did you have feedback on this book as you were working on it?
Frisch: Only after I had finished all the pencils.
Frisch: My publisher, for reasons that I do not understand, just decided to trust me, and it happened to turn out OK. I can imagine scenarios in which it could’ve turned out very badly. But it happened to work out. I was basically my own editor on the book, which is really a challenge. But at the same time that also is what allowed me to draw the book in the way that I did, by drawing all the pencils, and then doing all the inks, and then all the colors afterward.
Brogan: Were you seeking feedback from other people as you went? Did you reach out to friends, peers?
Frisch: I would show it to friends, and other people had read the script. I was pretty confident in the story itself by the time that I had really gotten into it, really started drawing it. You sort of, when you’re in the trenches of drawing a book, you go back and forth thinking like, “This is great, I am a genius,” and “This is total shit and I am a horrible artist.” But I never felt stuck, you know. I knew that having a script ahead of time means that you know that wherever you are going it is going to be comprehensible.
Brogan: What was it like seeing the book actually published, though?
Frisch: It’s really strange.
Brogan: How long had you spent working on it, by the time it came out.
Frisch: It was about three years, I would say. Plus maybe a little bit of time before that when I was writing the book. But it’s odd, different publishers print books differently: the French version of my book, it looks different than the American version. The French version, the colors are a little bit brighter and it’s a little bit thicker, the paper is a little bit thicker.
Brogan: Is that partially because of the printing technologies that were used to produce it?
Frisch: Right, and the materials.
Frisch: It’s also very different. It’s weird because I’m used to seeing the book at 10 by 15, the size that I drew it, and then I’m working in the computer on very large files, and then when the book is printed, it’s a smaller-sized book. It’s not a huge book or anything, and that actually has a really nice effect. It kind of contracts—like all of the art kind of contracts and looks just kind of nicer, like things get pulled together when you make them smaller like that.
Brogan: Yeah. I read it digitally, actually, so I don’t know.
Frisch: I mean the digital version of the book looks great, because it just reproduces the colors that I ... exactly.
Brogan: Did you do press for the book after it came out? Did you have to go to comic conventions and such?
Frisch: Yeah, I did Comic-Con and a few other conventions. I enjoy talking about the book a lot. Oftentimes the kinds of things I want to talk about are not the kinds of things that you really can get into in a comic’s interview or at a convention. I always want to talk about the philosophy of the book, or like things that happened in the book, which is not the kind of thing you want to talk about in a promotional interview, probably. Yeah, I did. When the French version of the book came out I went and did a little book tour in France, which was sort of a highlight, and really fun. It was very well received in France.
Brogan: Did you read reviews, commentary on it?
Frisch: The first review I read was very negative. No, I tend not to, after I read that first review, I was like, “OK this is just some random person who got an advanced galley of the book.” They send out ... they have these galley services that will just send out books to people who promise to review them and they’re usually people that are reading things like young adult novels and stuff. It’s probably not my audience, and, you know, at first I read a couple of those that, some of which were sort of unintentionally hilarious to me. There was one that was like, “This book is not worth the paper that it is printed on.” Like, really angry ones, which to me tells me that I probably did something right.
Brogan: Yeah, if you’re pissing people off.
Frisch: But after that I don’t really like reading reviews just because, I don’t know, I feel good about the book. I’m very happy for other people to write those reviews, and for other people to read them and have their own opinions and interpretations of the book. It’s just maybe not healthy for me to really get into it, even if it’s really positive. I just tend not to read those anymore.
Brogan: Are comics economically sustainable as a career? I mean, could you imagine making a living just doing comics?
Frisch: Not the kind of comics that I do, no. So there definitely are ways to make it work. I have a lot of friends who do their own graphic novel projects and then also do licensed comics. Boom! employs a lot of young, smart cartoonists. And they work on projects, like My Little Pony or Adventure Time, or whatever. That’s a way that a lot of cartoonists sustain themselves. That’s not what I do.
I’m a podcast producer. I got into radio production when I was in art school, actually. It’s always been this sort of dual career thing that I’ve had. And I like doing that because it’s a very different kind of work. But there are also a lot of things in common between comics and podcasts and radio stuff.
Brogan: What advice would you have for someone who wants to try to follow the comic’s path that you followed? Someone who wants to try.
Frisch: Oh, don’t follow in my path.
Brogan: Don’t follow your path.
Frisch: I’ve been very lucky and the advice that I would give to somebody, generally: learn to draw and find other people that like to draw and draw with them. Having other people, especially when you’re young, to draw with and to inspire you is really important.
Don’t draw from just a single medium. Watch movies and listen to music and let those things inspire you, and just think about why you want to do something. I feel like a question that is underposed is the question of, like, why should this thing exist? And if you can justify why this is important, why this means something, why this is interesting, your work is going to be a lot better.
Brogan: Well, thank you so much for stepping to this side of the microphone and talking with us.
Frisch: Sure. This was fun.
* * *
Brogan: In this Slate Plus segment, Benjamin Frisch discusses the relationship between making comics and producing podcasts, two seemingly distinct things that he does very well.
We’ve talked a little about these two seemingly very different jobs that you have: You make comics. You’ve created this 240-some-page comic book, graphic novel, The Fun Family. I know you also spend a huge amount of your time making podcasts, making radio. Are those two lines of work totally distinct for you or do they overlap in some way?
Frisch: They have a lot more in common than I think people realize.
Brogan: I’m surprised to hear that. What do podcasts and radio stuff have in common with comic stuff?
Frisch: They’re, both narrative. And the principles of narrative storytelling apply to both, and this is especially true when I’m doing documentary work in radio. The individual piece of a comic as a panel or a page in radio, it’s a sound clip, and it’s maybe shocking to people who don’t know how radio production works.
There’s a lot of chopping and editing that happens, stuff gets totally switched around, stuff from the beginning of an interview can end up at the very end, and it’s about trying to tell a coherent story using somebody else’s words. It’s like creating a comic where somebody else has already drawn a million different panels and then you have to pick out those panels and arrange them in a way that both maximizes emotion and excitement.
Brogan: In a way that I hadn’t thought about until you brought this up, comics and radio are both, in many ways, abut control and manipulation of time. Whether that’s the sound clip or the panel, which is, as several of our guests have pointed out, a unit of time.
Brogan: Or whether you’re thinking about the page, which I sometimes am inclined to suggest is really a unit of history, which is to say, it’s about different moments lining up in relationship to one another. So while the ways that we control time in the two media may be different, the basic thing that you as a podcaster, or you as a cartoonist, are doing, it does seem like it would be similar, in most cases.
Frisch: Yeah, they are, I mean, like the reason that I’m a pretty good podcast producer is because I’m a good cartoonist. Like I believe that strongly. I always mention that in interviews, when I’m being interviewed for employment. I don’t think anyone ever buys it, but I really think it’s true.