Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Gerhard and Cerebus: His First Month(s)

Sean Michael Robinson:

As I mentioned last week, I've started into the restoration work on Church and State I, beginning with Dave's new scans of all of the original artwork in the Cerebus Archive. Seeing all of this original artwork, I'm struck by how much different the experience can be viewing the work in color, all of the mechanical process exposed, rather than the more familiar experience of line art reproduction on newsprint. It mostly brought to mind my interview with Gerhard, only a few years ago now. The mammoth interview, which focused on pen and ink technique and the evolving craft in Cerebus, originally ran at, but now lives at the Hooded Utilitarian. I thought it might be interesting to run a few excerpts here, with the original newsprint scans replaced with color scans of the original artwork under discussion. I hope you enjoy!

Gerhard's first page of the monthly book.

Robinson: In the first 300 pages you worked on in Church and State, it’s amazing the amount of techniques you’re adding through that time — and subtracting too.

Gerhard: Right, yeah. Get rid of what doesn’t work, keep what does work, and you slowly build up a bag of tricks. Like when something worked, you kept that. “OK, remember how you did that.” And when something didn’t work, it was like, “Don’t do that again.”

Robinson: It’s interesting to me to look at the very first issue. You seemed to avoid contour lines a lot for the backgrounds and more focused on the value relationships, but you almost immediately ditched that.

Gerhard: That’s the problem with learning on the job — all these thousands of people get to see all of your mistakes. And luckily I managed to muddle through that. It was a learning process for both Dave and I. He has this incredible ability to mimic almost any drawing style. And when he got stuck, when he had a page where he’s thinking “How should this look? How should I present this? What is the effect I want here?” — all he had to do was to pull out a Bernie Wrightson book or Jeff Jones or whoever, and he could emulate that. He tried to get me to do the same sort of thing. And I would look at those references, but ultimately it would always work out best if I just drew the way that I drew. Not trying to fight it. I would try to make it look a little more like that, but I would still have to do it the way I do it. That was just the way it worked best. And it usually involved a whole lot of little lines. [Laughing.]


Robinson: To take that up, how much back-reading of Cerebus did you do before you actually worked on the Epic stories, or the series? Did you actually sit down and read all of the issues?

Gerhard: At the time before I started on Cerebus, I was working at the local art supply store, which was appropriately named The Art Store. And I was doing some commercial jobs on the side, trying to make some money and trying to build up a portfolio of published, or at least printed, work. So a lot of it was commercial work. I would have to draw snow tires and meat pies. One assignment was to draw a frozen beef pie using pointillism and “make it look delicious.” [Laughter.]

Robinson: Is that possible?

Gerhard: Well, I gave it my best shot. But this was the sort of thing that I was doing at the time. I was also working at the art supply store and doing the deliveries. And Dave was on my route. I would drop off the Letratone that made Cerebus gray. And that’s how I met Dave. Also Deni, his wife at the time, is a sister of a friend of mine. So we met at parties and stuff too. At the time I had done a whole bunch of pen-and-ink pieces and colored them with watercolor wash on top of the pen and ink, and framed all of those up to try to do a show, and that met with, let’s call it limited success? Because it takes a long time to put all those pieces together, costs a lot of money to frame them up and takes a long time to sell them and get your money back. So I had a whole bunch of unsold pieces hanging up in the apartment. I had a party and Dave and Deni came. I was aware he was doing a comic at the time, but I wasn’t into comics at all. I had seen an issue here or there, and thought, “That’s pretty cool,” but I hadn’t got into the story or anything. And then when Dave saw these colored pieces that I had done, he mentioned that Archie Goodwin at Epic had approached him about doing some color pieces, and Dave was never big into doing color. And so he asked if he laid out the pages and inked the characters and the word balloons, would I be able to do backgrounds like this behind it? So I said, “Let’s give it a shot.” 

Courtesy of the collection of Dean Reeves.

Gerhard: And that’s how the Epic pieces came about. Then when he asked me if I wanted to do the backgrounds on the monthly book, I sat down with issue 1 and read all the way up to the current one, and sort of dove in from there. I read the whole thing pretty much in one sitting.

Robinson: What was your impression at the time?

Gerhard: I remember going into the studio the next day after reading them and I just started gushing. Just “I love this part, I love that part, this is great, that’s great, when he does this, when he does that …” and Dave’s just sort of rolling his eyes like “Oh, God, he’s turned into a fawning fan.” What he wanted was a collaborator. “No, no, it’s OK. I’m just saying, I’m really blown away, I’m really excited about working on this stuff.”

And he was like, “Well, let’s get to work.” [Laughter.] And of course the first few pages were just brutal. Here I am — I figure basically all I’m doing is ruining Dave’s pages. [Laughter.]

Robinson: Did that feeling last a long time?

Gerhard: Let’s see here. We’re in Church and State 1. Here we go. Looking back on this stuff is just …

Robinson: I’m sorry to do this to you.

Gerhard: Well, I knew it was going to happen. [Laughter.] No, especially the first few issues …. the thing too is Dave was using a crow-quill pen [Long sigh.] I’d been using mostly technical pens. So not only was I trying to learn technique and whatnot, I was using a completely new medium… oh, God, I can’t look at this, that’s just awful. [Much laughter.]

Robinson: What page?

Original art courtesy of the collection of Gregory Kessler.

Gerhard: Church and State page 282. Booba’s at the desk writing and there’s all these horrible bricks in the background. [Laughter.] But again, I was learning on the job. I remember saying to Dave at this point, “I’m drawing individual bricks. What I have to draw is a wall.” Learn how to draw a wall instead of a bunch of bricks.

Two issues later. Gerhard is clearly on his way to drawing a wall, while still staying "on model" to the previously established look of the environment.

Robinson: That’s a great way to say that. I was noticing on … 233 was the first monthly page you were on, right?

Gerhard: Let’s see … [hums] Yes.

Robinson: There’s some techniques in those first few pages that you don’t really come back to. Is that stippling on 275?

The dreaded white dot tone.

Gerhard: What happened there was I inked it as a contour and though it was too distracting, too stark, so what I ended up doing was putting a sheet of white Letratone on that breaks up the black line. The other stuff on the page is a sheet of stipple Letratone. I wanted a gray value in there, but I didn’t have the confidence, especially with a new pen, to do it with crosshatching, so I did it with the stipple tone instead.

Robinson: Had you used much of that before?

Gerhard: Not to that extent. I was familiar with it. Now that I’m flipping through the pages, I see that I abandoned it pretty quickly. It’s not like I used it on very many pages directly after that.

It's likely Dave still had some white dot tone laying around the studio, left over from Theresa's blouse in the previous issue.

Robinson: And when you did bring it back it was on top of some of your crosshatching.

Gerhard: That’s the thing. Sometimes I would put all the layers of crosshatching down and decide there wasn’t enough contrast, so, rather than trying to add another layer of crosshatching, I would just put the stipple tone on top.


Gerhard: OK, we’re very early on here. We’re — What? — four or five pages into this. In the Epic stories, all the background stuff was very much in the background, and, other than the bottle he was drinking from, there wasn’t anything that the characters were directly interacting with. So when she picks up that chair all the sudden it still looks like it’s too much of a background chair, it’s not enough of a foreground chair. So I did my best at the time. But even looking at it then I’m going,“That’s not right. I have to do it differently than that. Not sure how yet, but differently.” So there was a distinction. A few pages later on Cerebus is in the courtyard playing cards, and the chair he’s sitting on there looks more like a foreground chair, not a background chair....

So I had to learn that distinction. The stuff that the characters are directly interacting with needs to be more cartoony, more contour line, and as things go further in the background, I could break up the contour line, use more value, or whatever.

Robinson: When you came back to those locations, sometimes a couple of hundred pages later, did you feel kind of stuck with the design that you had instigated?

Gerhard: In a lot of ways, yeah. That was one thing that I was probably overly concerned with, was trying to keep things looking consistent. At the same time I didn’t want to go back and make this thing exactly the same as before. I knew this was all one big long continuing story, and I knew it was going to be looked at in that way, especially when it would be reprinted in the phone books. I didn’t want any jarring stylistic change from one issue to the next, one page to the next. It was a bit of a struggle to not repeat the same mistakes I made before. It was a balancing act — make it look like it did before, but better.

Robinson: When we hit 305, is this some type of splatter on top of a Letratone?

This looks wildly different in print than in color reproduction. Take a peek.

Gerhard: Nope, again it’s the stipple tone. I would use two layers of it. The lighter gray is one layer, and I would put another layer of the stipple tone on top of it. If you look at the original pages it looks really good. If you look at this page reduced and printed on newsprint, it’s like “Ugh, that looks muddy. Don’t do that again!” That was the other thing learning to draw for reproduction. Most of the stuff I had done up till then was for framing, not reduced and reproduced. I would do the pages and I wouldn’t actually see how it turned out until the printed book came in. And I would look at it and go “Oh, that didn’t work; that did. Do that again; don’t do that again!” These issues were pretty much done without the knowledge of what it was going to look like in the final book.


Robinson: How much adjustment do you think Dave was doing at this point knowing what you were going to be coming up with?

Gerhard: Well, when he was working, he was starting on a blank piece of paper. I think initially anyway his drawing style didn’t change too much. Did you notice on 331 the top right panel there’s no turn on Cerebus’ arm? [Laughter.] That was my job too — I took over the toning responsibilities, and I just completely forgot to tone his arm on that one. Anyway, this was sort of our philosophy too. No matter how good the original art looks, whatever it looks like printed is the important thing, because that’s what everybody’s going to see. Not the original art. So if it worked on the original art and it didn’t work in print, then I had to change that. It was a learning curve for the both of us as we got the printed book back. We both sort of adjusted our styles and techniques down until we sort of met in the middle and finally gelled and it looked like one cohesive … I wonder when that started happening.


Anonymous said...

It sure would be nice to see the Epic stories collected in something. I have the original issues, but it would be nice to see these in a higher quality book. Unfortunately their length might make that hard. They were very short, so they would need to be added material to some kind of nice edition of other material.

Sean R said...

Hey Anonymous!

Assuming we get through the restoration of the entire series, the two miscellaneous volumes will be next-- one of every narrative black and white page (short stories, uncollected issues, etc) and one of all color miscellaneous works (including Epic). There was some discussion and work towards this a few years ago on the Yahoo discussion group-- as far as I know, that's still the planned template for the books.

(Believe it or not, there has already been some work on this front, involving securing scans of existing materials...)

Jeff Seiler said...

Sean, I just spent the better part of three hours rereading the entire interview at the Hooded Utilitarian, examining in minute detail each reprinted drawing (thanks, Samsing Galaxy S5, for the remarkable screen clarity!), and marveling at the really great flow of the interview.

Thanks, all over again, Sean!

Anonymous said...

"I wonder when that started happening?"

To me, pages 322 and 323 of Church & State jump out as an early example of where it really starts to gel and look like Dave and Gerhard's Cerebus.

And Gerhard really did do a great job of improving the art and yet keeping it consistent. It's such a gradual improvement that it's not really that noticeable from issue to issue.

I find that by the end of Church & State I the backgrounds were really well integrated. By the latter half of Church & State II, Gerhard was not only integrating the backgrounds, but was being really expressive with them. The work looks very confident and like Gerhard was letting loose a bit more.

- Reginald P.

Sean R said...

You're welcome, Jeff! Glad you enjoyed it.

Hey Reginald!

Those are definitely two great pages, mainly for the huge tonal range. I think the thing that keeps those pages from being in the same category as the later work is a bit of line weight confusion. The later, tightly integrated pages, where the collaboration is really seamless, seem to have a unity of weight to the texture. I.e. finer lines are descriptive of tone and texture, coarser lines are descriptive of contour, motion, and "activity/liveliness." The spread you're indicating still has a bit of friction that would soon disappear-- the lines indicating the flow of Astoria's blouse are finer than anything happening "behind" her-- hatching on the books, etc.

Not that this matters in the least to 99.9 percent of people looking at a page like that. :) Those are just the tell-tale signs, to me, of there being two hands on that spread.