Logan Kaufman: How did comic books first
enter your life?
Jeffrey Lewis: Supposedly some friend
of the family gave me some comics when I was three
or so and couldn't read yet, but they were read
to me over and over, and somehow I started wanting
more. My mom just read them to me over and over
until I could read them on my own. Comics are
great for learning how to read!
Rom #7 is sort of the first comic I recall having
real significance to me; for some reason Rom grabbed
me a lot more than Superman or the Hulk or the
usual popular stuff. I got Rom comics whenever
I could. When I was a little bit older my babysitter
Laurie got me into the black and white Elfquest
comic magazine, so I was kind of into independant
"underground" comics almost right from the beginning,
and through picking up stuff at garage sales I
also got into the English translations of Tintin
comics from Belgium. So even from a pretty young
age, I had a wider view of the comics world than
if I was just into the mainstream superhero stuff,
not that I didn't love that as well. And we never
had a TV in the house the whole time I was growing
up, so reading books and comics was my main form
Logan: Were you drawing from comics a
lot then, or did that come later?
Jeffrey Lewis: Do you mean was I specifically
copying or tracing drawings from comics as a way
of learning how to draw? I suppose I did some
of that, though I don't remember much specifically.
I remember later doing a bunch of tracings in
which I would make my own comic character by tracing
the head of one character, the body of another,
and the arms of another out of different comic
books. Especially from the "Marvel Universe" series,
which was like a dictionary of characters. That
was fun -- probably when I was a little older, like
ten or 12. I did the same thing with GI Joe
toys, taking them apart and making composite characters.
So anyway, yeah, tracing paper was definitely a
part of my life. But I was doing a lot of other
drawings outside of this.
Logan: What else were you drawing early
Jeffrey Lewis: Honestly, I'm not sure.
I remember being really psyched to have learned
how to properly draw the Batman bat logo when
I was five, and I do recall some early drawings
of Batman and Robin, a dragon, a drawing of my
little brother, soldiers, random stuff, from about
age four to age seven.
I remember drawing a stove and and being totally
mystified as to how I had accidentally made it
look 3D. I had drawn it in perspective by accident,
and somehow couldn't grasp the concept at all.
I guess I was just drawing lots of characters,
like He-Man and Captain Carrot, but not with stories.
Oh yeah, and Michael Jackson, too. I did a big
drawing of Michael Jackson when I was about eight
and made my parents hang it on the front door
of the apartment to welcome all neighbors and
Logan: When did that all start coming
together into a "comic book" style of artwork?
I think a lot of kids learn to draw from comics
or pen and ink children's art, but of course,
not everybody takes it to that next step, or they
move away from that style of art entirely.
Jeffrey Lewis: Yeah, I've wondered about
this. I really can't remember the evolution to
making real comics. I do remember a "comic" that
I did in 4th grade as a class project, but it
was not a comic with panels, it was just one drawing
on each page, and the "story" was just some kind
of superhero guy flying through a cave and almost
getting crushed by descending spikes. It was more
like storyboards for animation than a comic book,
but it was quite a lot of drawings.
I was definitely doing real comic books by junior
high. I was an early fan of the Teenage Mutant
Ninja Turtles from when it was just an underground
black and white comic, and I made my own comic
series, Humanoid Atomic Samurai Squirrels that
I drew about four big issues of when I was about
12. I never photocopied them, just showed
the originals to people. And then after that I
would draw super-violent comics of certain characters
I had invented with names like Slaughterhouse
and Massacre, I guess inspired partially by the
"gritty" comics that were coming out around then,
like the increasing violence of Wolverine and
the X-Men comics in general, and the even more
violent, though much smarter, Dark Knight Returns
and Watchmen comics, which I was reading around
Usually my comics would involve my characters
killing my teachers or just killing lots of random
people. I also got into horror movies at the same
age, 12 or 13, and the violence in my
comics increased even more when I discovered the
ultraviolent Japanese comics and animation stuff
like Fist of the North Star. Basically every step
of the way, from four years old up to teenage
years and beyond, everytime I outgrew the comics
I was reading (and had a chance to outgrow and
escape the lifestyle!) I happened to stumble on
something slightly more mature that kept my interest
'til the next phase came, and kept me inspired
with new kinds of things to draw.
Logan: So basically, you'd have been expelled
had you been in school today...
Jeffrey Lewis: Yeah, if I saw a kid drawing
the kinds of things I was drawing I would have
locked him away immediately! Although the comics
were all pretty humorous, it wasn't really what
you'd call "sadistic" despite what it sounds like,
and for some odd psychological reason I never
drew anything involving sex. In college I was
asked to do some pornographic animation to be
used in someone's film and it was really embarrassing
and hard to do. All the sex neuroses always got
sublimated into non-sexual ultraviolence in those
Logan: When did that ultraviolence evolve
to having a pink unicorn appear on the cover of
Jeffrey Lewis: When I became a hippie
around age 15, and began drawing peaceful,
psychedelic comics starring new hero characters
like Deadhead. I got into Alan Moore's Swamp Thing,
and 60s Marvel stuff, Jim Starlin, and other psychedelic
comics. I also drew a "Sandman meets Led Zeppelin"
Logan: A lot of your shorter work now
has a light humour quality with a fair share of
puns. Where did your writing develop?
Jeffrey Lewis: It's just a fact that influences
are separate from medium. My comics get influenced
by music, my music is influenced by comics. Of
course life experience figures in in a big way.
It's all a jumble - there's probably an equal
influence from Joyce's Ulysses as there
is from Seinfeld, and from Evil Dead
2, and from Dr. Seuss, and from Basil Wolverton
and Alan Moore and Dan Clowes comics, Virginia
Woolf, etc. etc.
I don't really know where the pun thing comes
from. Quite often these are thoughts I jot down
that could end up in a song or in a comic book
depending on how they match up with other ideas
I'm working on.
Logan: What were your first comics that
you were actually printing up?
Jeffrey Lewis: I was printing and selling
comics that I made out of Grateful Dead song lyrics.
I sold them at Grateful Dead concerts from 1993
- 95. I was working at the print shop at my college
and could make free bad-quality photocopies. I
started publishing various comic collections of
work by me and anyone else I could get to contribute,
and I'd sell them to people in Washington Square
Park in New York, just approach people and ask
if they wanted to buy a comic, I might make 20
bucks in a couple hours then I'd go spend it on
records. I was about 19 at the time.
Logan: Were you hoping to make a living
with comics at the time, or just happy to get
money for music?
Jeffrey Lewis: I felt like I could have
made a living at it in the sense that I was averaging
about ten bucks an hour profit in sales, which
is like having a regular job that one could live
on, but of course this was sort of a fantasy in
that it would have required that I be selling
comics to people in the park all day long, multiple
days a week, and I never would have had the sales
gusto to last that long. It would have required
some serious dedication. It was more fun to just
say, "Hey, I need some bucks, better hit the park
for a few hours."
Logan: After college and the free photocopies,
did you still do comics the same way?
Jeffrey Lewis: Yeah, actually exactly
the same way because I would go back to my college
and try to make free photocopies for months and
years after I graduated and was no longer working
at the print shop...It worked for a little while
but got harder and harder to scam free copies
so I had to start paying for copies in the city.
But by then I was playing music and thus was able
to sell comics at open mics and at my shows so
the economics evened out I suppose. Also the summer
after I graduated college I drew my first full
length comic book, a 40-page story, so that was
the end of my having to publish compilations of
other people's work along with mine. I started
to just put together full comics of only my own
work because I was doing a bit more. Not a huge
amount, but enough for maybe one 50-page issue
Logan: Have any alternative publishers
shown any interest in collecting your work?
Jeffrey Lewis: No, but I send out stuff
to the indie companies maybe once a year or once
every 18 months just to remind them I exist,
and hopefully at some point someone will take
on the job of publishing and distributing them
which'll theoretically save me some trouble. The
biggest thing about being published would just
be the validation in the eyes of the indie-comic
buying public - all 12 of them!
Logan: When did you make the move to the
standard format comic in Guff / Fuff?
Jeffrey Lewis: I had been printing increasing
quantities of my comics in photocopied form, like
I'd do a printing of 200 copies, then sell out
over a few months and do another printing of 300,
and when doing photocopied printings I still have
to do all the folding and stapling etc. myself
which is a big pain. And the covers were still
black and white photocopies. To afford to do a
color cover photocopy I had to print at least
1,000 copies, which was a lot for me. I would
have to charge 5 dollars for a 20 page comic and
make 1,000 copies to make it work out - I decided
to include a CDR with the comic because that would
be super cheap to manufacture but justify the
cover price, so people feel like they are paying
the extra money for the CDR but really the money
is covering the cost of a color cover. Thus was
born Guff #1, and of course I still had to do
all the work of folding and stapling and putting
CDRs in sandwich baggies and taping the baggies
into the comics, for all 1,000 issues, and it
cost me about 2,225 dollars to do, and I was scared
about having to sell so many, and having the boxes
clutter up my apartment, etc. But I actually sold
them all in about a year, helped by the fact that
I was doing more touring and able to sell them
on tour, plus had Major Matt Mason's Olive Juice
Music doing online sales for me, plus an indie
comics distributor in the US moving a few copies
into a handful of comic stores around the country.
So then for the next issue I took the big leap
out of the the photocopy world into actual comic
printing, for which I had to do a minimum print
run of TWO thousand, but it is SO much cheaper
per issue (1,000 bucks buys 2,000 copies, rather
than 2,000 bucks buying 1,000 copies as it was
with photocopying!) PLUS the huge advantage of
having all these "real" comics just shipped to
my place, pre-assembled! No more folding and stapling!
What joy! And the thrill of having real comics,
which also happen to be much smaller and lighter
and easer to carry on tour, cheaper to ship to
stores, etc. SO, when I reprinted Guff #1 I did
it in the new "real" format, 2,000 copies, with
real CDs instead of CDRs. And I'm about to publish
Fuff #4 (I changed the title from Guff because
there's already a comic called Guff out there).
So my apartment is full of boxes of comics but
they're actually selling pretty well, especially
with all this touring, so it's conceivable I might
even have to reprint issue #2 within a year or
Logan: Did you fear people would buy the
comic just for the CD?
Jeffrey Lewis: It sort of works both ways
- someone who buys it in a comic store who has
never heard any of the music I make will thus
be introduced to it, and the reverse is what happens
more often, someone sees me play a show and buys
the comic, or buys it from the website because
they heard that particular track live or on the
radio and thus they get introduced to the comic
book stuff. That CD that comes with Fuff #1 is
kind of the perfect bait both ways, because it's
my "History of Punk in NY 1950-1975" project,
intrest in which has led to that comic spreading
a lot further than it would have if it was just
a comic. That's the secret plan - phase the comics
into the lives of the music fans until I can just
do comics full time!
Logan: Do you get a lot of positive feedback
from the comics? I think they stand up quite well
to anything out there right now...
Jeffrey Lewis: Not nearly as much as for
the music, partially because so many more people
are exposed to the music, via touring, radio,
press and album sales; comics on the other hand
get no press or radio play or touring etc, and
with the current distributor I've got it ends
up being perhaps a dozen stores nationwide stocking
the comics on some shelf. But hopefully that'll
keep building and even out a bit.
Logan: Has your comic work slowed down
at all with the amount of touring you're doing?
How do you juggle your time?
Jeffrey Lewis: The comic output has certainly
slowed down, as has general art-production. I
used to fill up three or four sketchbooks a year just
drawing all the time and now I'm down to about
one a year. I just don't have all the lonely time
to draw and make comics that I used to! I'll have
to figure out a better way to balance my time.
I'm still managing to come out with one or two issues
a year, but I'd love that to be doubled.
Logan: Isn't there a lot of down time
or travel time on tours you could take advantage
of, or is it all too hectic?
Jeffrey Lewis: If I could write or draw
in a moving vehicle without getting headaches
or carsickness I'd get a lot more done!
Logan: You have a sort of fusion of the
comics and music going with your low-fi videos,
when did you first do those?
Jeffrey Lewis: It started when somebody
said they would pay me to illustrate their song
lyrics. Of course like 95% of the time when somebody
says they will hire you to do artwork it tends
not to come about, and this job did not come about.
But the idea stuck with me and I thought I should
do this for one of my own songs so I could show
the drawings while singing the song. I had a big
pad of paper around the house for years which
I didn't want to throw out because it would have
been wasteful...But I did all my art in sketchbooks
so this was the first time I had an opportunity
to make use of the big paper. I spent an evening
at Toby Goodshank's place watching some live Motorhead
video he had rented and drawing the Chelsea Hotel
"video". The next one I did was for the song "Gold",
both of these are very long story songs and it
was quite cumbersome to try to hold these big
books on stage and flip through the pages. I learned
to start picking shorter songs for "video" subjects,
and also improving the art quite a bit, making
the drawings a lot bolder and brighter to be seen
better from a distance. Those early ones are pretty
awful compared to the recent ones. I've got something
like 14 of these now. And I've recently converted
most of them to digital slideshow format, so for
the recent couple tours I've been carrying around
a bedsheet and a projector. It's not as charming
as showing the ragged books themselves but for
larger audiences it certainly makes the artwork
much bigger and brighter and easier for more people
Logan: Have you had other ideas for trying
to move your interests together, or would you
prefer they stayed independent in most respects?
Jeffrey Lewis: I'm always into coming
up with different ways to combine the two things.
Logan: Issue #4 of Guff / Fuff is coming
out soon, and you've said the series will be at
least five issues long, which would obviously
be only one more issue. Is that a possibility?
Jeffrey Lewis: It's just because the European
Travel Diary comic book is 72 pages long and
I had finished the whole thing before I embarked
on the idea of doing a regular series. Thus it's
been relatively easy to put together each issue
- I just take ten or 12 pages of the European
Travel Diary that I have sitting around unpublished,
and I only need to come up with ten or 12 pages
of other material to have an issue. But I think
issue #5 will contain the final chapter of the
Diary comic, so starting with issue #6 I'll have
to actually draw a full 24 pages of material for
each issue, double my current workload, and even
as it is I've found it hard to do more than two
issues a year! Hopefully I'll be up to the challenge.
Actually I'm really looking forward to trying
to have a comic of all-new material, not that
it makes a difference to the reading public whether
they are seeing something I drew last week or
three years ago, but it would be a difference
Logan: What are your ideas for Guff /
Fuff #6? Would you start a new autobiographical
series, or are you interested in doing some longer
Jeffrey Lewis: Actually, upon recalculation
I have enough European Travel Diary comic
pages left that it will take two more issues to
finish serializing it. Thus Fuff #7 will
be the first issue of all-new material. OR, alternatively,
I can start using the Fuff series as a means of
reprinting all of my now out-of-print material,
all the comics listed on my website that I no
longer have copies of. Some of these contain stories
that were never finished, such as the Babyshoes
trilogy and the autobiographical comic of my semester
studying in London. It would be nice to finish
these comics eventually, and in order for people
to be able to read the first couple chapters,
which are now unavailable, I'd have to reprint
them anyway, so maybe reprinting them in the pages
of future Fuffs is not a bad idea. Except that
it's kind of crummy for me to be spending all
this time and money and storage space for the
sake of comics I drew between 1998 and 2003 -
I really should be concentrating on new stuff!
As far as what the new stuff would be, probably
more biography, like the Guggenheim story and
my parents' stories, as well as more fiction.
Logan: You've said if you could do only
one, it would be comics over music. Do you have
a point or time in your mind where you might say
"I've had a great run with music" and see what
you could accomplish as a full time comic artist?
Jeffrey Lewis: The point at which the comics
make me enough money to live off of! I'd probably
still be writing songs, but I wouldn't have the
financial need to be a "working musician," as
far as regular touring and releasing albums. For
instance maybe I would tour once every couple
years, or even not at all, instead of the current
three or so times a year, if I could count on
the comics making up for the income - the ironic
thing is that a lot of my touring income comes
from the fact that I can sell my comics at my
shows. If I could eventually build up the same
kind of sales through retail stores that'd be
really cool. But it's a lot harder - a comic will
wait on a shelf for someone to come to it, whereas
going on tour you bring the music and art to the
people. Plus there is such a huger place in culture
for music than there is for comics. The comic
reading population is just a tiny fraction of
the music listening population.