John Linton Roberson is an illustrator, cartoonist and writer, living in Berkeley, California. His new graphic novel is the first volume of his version of Frank Wedekind's Lulu.
How did you discover Cerebus and how long did you read it for?
The first time I encountered CEREBUS was a huge wall rack in a comics/fantasy store in a mall in North Charleston, SC, a place that mainly catered to a D&D crowd and, irresponsibly, sold nunchakus and shurikens right next to a small rack they always had on the counter of Miller's DAREDEVIL and later RONIN, stuff like that. It was one of two stores I went to regularly. It seemed to have every issue to that time, which was just around when the book was hitting the 40s. I remember being impressed by the covers -- so different than almost any comics cover of the time.
I had already been reading ELFQUEST and stuff from Pacific at that time, and stuff like the John Byrne "I am a company man" thing--answered, I thought, brilliantly with Marty Pasko's "Companyman" in E-MAN--and coming across the Comics Journal, and Steve Gerber's fight with Marvel over Howard, stuff like that, was making me want to seek out stuff with the creator's copyright on it. I was 13 or so. That's weird. And Cerebus was the king of this along with the Pinis. It was from something Richard & Wendy wrote in an issue of ELFQUEST that taught me about how to take care of copyrights. But Dave showed me more.
I got #43 -- the "Election Night" issue -- as part of a stack of comics for Christmas. That stark, almost 30s deco cover, especially -- my god. I would often sneak into my mom's closet around Christmas to have a look at the presents, and I remember sneaking looks at that many times before she gave it to me. I hadn't seen a comic laid out like that before, and the great graphicness of Lord Julius back and forth on the page. Dave did very well by himself around that time to do a lot more with blacks.
Anyway, I picked up the book loyally from that day forward (although the shops didn't always get them consecutively--an annoying thing when you missed an issue was that if nothing had been happening for a while in the book, THAT ISSUE YOU MISSED would be the one where something series-changing did), at least up to just around "Form and Void." I did however have a gap around READS, so I came only much later to the...unpleasantness, which I will not speak of here.
How has your own creativity/comics been influenced by Cerebus?
Dave is probably -- maybe Kurtzman/Elder, Gerber/Colan (and I grew up on HOWARD THE DUCK and commonalities between it and CEREBUS was another reason I took to it), and Bissette/Toleben are as primary, but not as driving -- my single biggest influence, on many levels. Firstly in that his way with pacing and layout heavily influenced my own. The way he depicts dialogue on a page is unparalleled except MAYBE by Eisner and... I do not know his letterer's name but he deserves a lot of credit. And also the interplay of Chaykin and Bruzenak. But only Dave makes lettering you can hear, which is the standard by which all comics lettering should be measured. I recall especially having many laughs with a musician friend with Princes Mick & Keef, reading their dialogue aloud. The way I use lettering owes a huge debt to him and to Eddie Campbell.
His wit and way with one-liners in HIGH SOCIETY and CHURCH & STATE. I feel CHURCH & STATE was the most influential, the one from which I learned the most, but it was HIGH SOCIETY that first cracked my head open.
And I'm particularly fond of how he taught me in HIGH SOCIETY and CHURCH & STATE how ink and space can competely save you the trouble of drawing a background.
My friend, the great artist Emily Kaplan, and I in 1991 did a 'Single Page' with our character Pumpkin Boy and sent it to him. He was willing to do ten pages of it. That's when we chickened out and never answered him back, so it wasn't.
Has Cerebus influenced your approach to working in the comics industry?
I owe that all to Dave's example, instruction, and briefly, direct guidance. I believe you make your own place in it. I love the medium, but dislike the industry. I don't begrudge anyone working for the big two if they realize they are just doing a job and will later do greater things. God knows I've done plenty of commissions, and always will. What I don't get is people whose big dream IS to work on characters they'll never own, rather than as a means to later success to allow them the freedom to make their own thing. Or worse, happily give to the companies a creation of their own. I don't get why you would.
I also learned from Sim: What's yours, should remain yours. Not even for reasons of honor, though there is that: reasons of business defensible to anyone in the Real World. He gave me pride in what I do and a no-nonsense attitude to making it and publishing it.
Dave's GUIDE TO SELF-PUBLISHING made me move in 1997 from writing plays -- where I had no control over the final product and a small potential audience, if any -- to doing my first graphic novel VITRIOL, adapted from one of those plays (as I realized both started with scripts, so...) and publishing it in installments in my fancily-xeroxed comic PLASTIC. And I had full control over everything in it, for NO audience at all! Awesome!
But there was more. I've written about this elsewhere but briefly, I sent a letter (and I mean a letter), with a copy of PLASTIC, to Dave shortly after I started Bottomless Studio, to thank him. He wrote back, saying how strange a transition from playwright to cartoonist was. And he had also done a layout lesson on tracing paper with one of the pages of "Vitriol," showing alternatives I might have considered. Along with Michael Bair once showing me proportions at a convention, this was the most important art lesson I ever had. That he actually took the time to do this... I couldn't believe it.
There's far more; you can look up my blog post about Dave if you're interested. But I owe everything to Dave's example, his showing us you can do it yourself, on your own terms, as long as you're willing to DO THE WORK and have dignity about it.
To this day I still put red Xs on a wall calendar with every completed page, as he advised in the GUIDE. It does make a difference in how you pace yourself.
Do you have a favourite scene/sequence from Cerebus?
Oh yes. The Throwing Baby scene, which besides being excellent and almost Pythonesque dark comedy, also manages to establish the entire theme of the series. "Sometimes you can get what you want and still not be very happy."
Also the scene with Mr. Haddon, the solid gold streetlamps guy, where Cerebus gets him drunk and swindles him -- right before the Moon Roach commits "Unorthodox Economic Revenge."
Third would be the entire negotiation scene between Julius, Chicolini & Cerebus (actually, any scene involving those three at length). Just pitch-perfect and an example of that aforementioned snap of wit that made this such an amazing book.
And Sforz is the origin -- along with a Serbian poet/stage director I knew in Chicago -- of the way Vladrushka talks. That's why she calls herself "Famous the Star of Many Movings."
Would you recommend others read Cerebus, and if so why?
I would, but different sections for different reasons. The problem, for instance, with "Fall and the River" is I know many who would read it -- if not for the aardvark. That's what makes the book sometimes a hard sell. And Cerebus isn't even a big part of that or of JAKA'S STORY, another I would recommend to someone who was a reader -- but not of comics.
For someone who likes satire, HIGH SOCIETY and CHURCH & STATE are a huge hit. Those, along with JAKA'S STORY -- and MOTHERS & DAUGHTERS (esp. MINDS), actually, which to me was more or less where Cerebus's story ended; he seems more a passenger on the book after that -- are the zenith of the series.
The thing about the book is that, in general, even though I do comics myself, I don't think enough comics readers now can truly appreciate the brilliance and subtlety of the book. I feel it's best recommended to them fancy book-readers who like them some Waugh. But then, how do you explain the Roach? After JAKA'S STORY & MELMOTH, the problem is that stuff gets too self-referential, and weighs the book down.
I think everyone should read all of the books. I believe it's among the very greatest achievements in comics, however I feel it falls short in its last third. What's good in the book outweighs all that. But the books above are the ones that stay with me.
And I treasure the phone books and will hold onto them till they or I are brittle brown dust.