The Cat Came Back: Cat Garza and the Highs and Lows of a Webcomic Pioneer

Few people have gone into the undiscovered country of the "infinite canvas" Scott McCloud spoke of in his book Reinventing Comics so boldly as has Cayetano Garza Jr.

Over the years and through a variety of venues, Cat has worked hard to push the envelope, often passing up the opportunity to work in print in favour of taking his art somewhere new. Whether on Magic Inkwell or Modern Tales, Cat has rarely shied away from taking chances; however, as he admits, being on the cutting edge can be kind of lonely, and on occasion, downright disillusioning.

Last Fall, Cat took an extended break from comics. At first it looked as though he might not come back. Months went by… and then our Cat came back, bringing his love of experimentation, bright colors, and classic cartoons to the web once more.

Few people have gone into the undiscovered country of the "infinite canvas" Scott McCloud spoke of in his book Reinventing Comics so boldly as has Cayetano Garza Jr.

Over the years and through a variety of venues, Cat has worked hard to push the envelope, often passing up the opportunity to work in print in favour of taking his art somewhere new. Whether on Magic Inkwell or Modern Tales, Cat has rarely shied away from taking chances; however, as he admits, being on the cutting edge can be kind of lonely, and on occasion, downright disillusioning.


Last Fall, Cat took an extended break from comics. At first it looked as though he might not come back. Months went by… and then our Cat came back, bringing his love of experimentation, bright colors, and classic cartoons to the web once more.


How old were you when you decided that you wanted to make comics?

Cat Garza: Well, I was only six years old when I got my first comic, but I didn’t start drawing comics until the second grade. At the time I thought, "That would be a good job to have!"


What was it about comics that appealed to you more than any other artform you might have sought out?

CAT: I have always been attracted by the visual quality of comics. Even as a small child I recognized the power of images and words together, though I might not have known exactly what was going on or how to describe it in technical terms.


Who were your inspirations?

CAT: Everything around me was an inspiration in those days. When you’re a kid you are constantly being bombarded by outside stimuli: movies, toys, video games, art, music, school, the other kids, cartoons, books. These all provided some kind of inspiration for me artistically. There isn’t one specific person or thing I could point at and define as the pivotal moment of inspiration. My family: my little sister, my brother, my mom and dad… everyone encouraged my comics endeavors from the beginning. I think that helped a lot.

I’d venture to say pretty much anything that makes me FEEL a certain way will be a big influence on what I do because that’s what I’m trying to accomplish with my work.


When and why did you decide to put the Magic Inkwell online?

CAT: It was right after SPX 97 and meeting Scott McCloud. I’d been posting comics on my personal website at the University and he’d apparently found it and knew who I was when we finally met for the first time at the con. He was a big hero of mine and I actually had a copy of Understanding Comics with me but didn’t know he\’d be there.

Of course, I was stunned when he stood up and said, "It\’s nice to finally meet you." I almost crapped my pants. I quickly whipped out UC in true fanboy style and got his autograph. He seemed impressed that I had so many dog-eared pages within. I must have gone through that book a million times at that point. Then he said he wanted to talk to me at the Pig Roast about some ideas he was working on for a book about computers and comics (which eventually became Reinventing Comics). We had an amazing talk and Scott opened my eyes to the potential of the web and comics.

On the plane ride home my mind was buzzing with potential ways of doing online comics that broke out of the page format and used the web to its full potential. I started feverishly writing down ideas and then over the course of a year or two they were pretty much all explored. Animation. Sound. Interactivity. An "infinite canvas" structure…


How did Scott’s naming you as someone to watch for effect your comics and your attitude?

CAT: Well, it’s been a mixed blessing. Scott is one of my favorite peers in comics, and one of my best friends. Meeting him was a fan’s dream come true. Still, a lot of McCloud detractors saw his endorsement of my work as a threat to them, or they were jealous, or whatever. I think a lot of people don’t like my work specifically because McCloud likes me or tells people about me when he gives talks, instead of just not liking my work because they don’t like my work. Screw’em. McCloud’s my friend and my hero.

I will say this – the pressure to live up to being one of Scott’s “favorites” has been the hardest thing I’ve had to do. But it keeps me working harder to produce something I think is worthy of Scott’s (and everyone else’s) attention.

Of course, I wonder if a lot of that pressure isn’t self-imposed. It’s only when I go to conventions that I get a sense that some of it isn’t. I always get this perception that there’s a lot of people just sitting back watching, waiting to see if I choke. Or I may just be insanely paranoid… I guess that’s what the attention’s given me: a heightened sense of paranoia.


Do you think that you have been under more pressure than some webcomics creators because of the extra attention?

CAT: Well, like I said, it’s hard to gauge whether it’s self imposed paranoia or truly something that’s happening around me in the "industry." When I first started out, no one liked me because I was another McCloud disciple experimenting with online comics in long form FOR FREE. Retailers hated me, other "legitimate" print cartoonists hated me. Then, when the keensters really started making an impact, suddenly there’s all these cartoonists that are INSANELY popular for online work and I was still not part of the club.

I’d get a lot of flack for being on McCloud’s webcomix panel short list, mostly from people who wanted to talk on those panels as well. It’s been tough, I won’t lie. It’s done nothing for my self-confidence or my self-esteem in as much as I really want people to like my work. That should be the standard by which I’m held. Not whether or not I’m friends with Scott McCloud or he likes my work.

Not to mention that I suddenly got stage fright about a year or two ago when I realized how many people were watching me. I remember walking with McCloud, Larry Marder, and Jim Valentino one year at San Diego Comicon on our way to a party or some sort and them telling me about other young “up and comers” they’d gotten to know over the years (really well known ones, too, but I won’t mention any names) and how some of them had choked under the pressure of critical attention. I remember thinking, "dear GOD, that’s gonna be me… I just know it… I can’t take this…"


What kind of reaction has your family had to your decision to make comics?

CAT: Well, my parents and siblings have always supported my endeavors. I don’t think they understand how much has happened since I moved out of the house for me in comics. They’re aware that I’m known, but they have no concept of what I’m doing. They read the comics and have always supported me, though. I think it helps that I actually have a decent day job. I think if I quit working to do comics exclusively they might worry a bit.

I think I knew they’d be behind me ever since that day in 2nd grade when I drew my first comic (SUPER FAT DOT) and showed it to my mom. She and my dad were pretty proud of me and supported my art from that day on. She bought me my first comic when I was six years old, so I guess that says it all right there.


What kind of support do you have for your art/comics? Who champions your cause?

CAT: I wish I could claim a huge fan base like some of the keensters or better known cartoonists that have made the jump to the web, but the people supporting me most are people that are online comics creators or readers. They’re the ones that keep me the most energized about what I’m doing. Without them, I’d really start to wonder why I’m doing this at all!

A lot of older creators that I’ve admired for years are “champions for my cause” I’d say: McCloud, Marder, Rick Geary. All my wonderful Moderntales compadres and my fairy godfather Joey Manley are also a great support system. All my webcomics pals and contemporaries: Gaddis, Farley, Farnon, and Demian who keep me inspired and socially connected. Above and beyond that, I’d say my readers are my best support system.


What do you hate most about comics, online or otherwise?

CAT: Cliques. Clubs. The attitude that "we’re in, you’re out." Jealousy. Backstabbing. Pretty much everything I hate about human nature that seems so much more amplified in the microcosm of the "comics industry."


Cuentos was very experimental in many ways… besides being unconventional in its layout, and art style, it also brought a kind of folk culture to the web that is largely unrepresented. What are the challenges of doing something so intimate and close to home?

CAT: The biggest challenge was how to translate the old border tales into a modern story that not only incorporated them in the narrative, but added a twist to the stories without jeopardizing the original tone and flavor of the folk tales. I was trying to convey the "border" experience in a sequential way that stayed true to the culture of the lower Rio Grande valley.

The experimental art/layout style definitely helped me in many ways. There are many advantages to using the internet to tell a story, and each new strip allowed me the chance to enrich the storytelling by using narrative devices that are native only to the web (animation, scrolling, etc.).

Since I was drawing upon what was originally an oral storytelling tradition, I was having to think in terms of imagery and how to best represent some of the characters and situations visually. I’m not quite sure how successful this first part of Cuentos was but I’m hoping to revisit this when I finally return to Cuentos for the second part (which should start sometime next year) and maybe even include some music or more involved animated sequences.

My greatest responsibility in telling Cuentos, as far as I was concerned from the beginning, was that this tradition of handing down these stories from generation to generation is in grave danger of being lost as many of my generation forget their heritage and become part of American culture.

When my grandfather passed away while I was living in Austin, I knew that time was running out for me to do something for my family, my culture, and for the place of my birth. This was the impetus for Cuentos originally. Not only to produce a piece of work that brought folkloric storytelling to this new medium, but also adding to the rich tradition and adapting it to the greatest communication tool of our modern era.


What is it that keeps bringing you back time and again to the drawing board?

CAT: I’m obsessed with comics. It’s a love/hate codependency I can’t seem to wean myself away from. If I don’t get to draw comics for any extended period of time, I start to get a little squirrely. My mind starts to slip a little. The constant nagging desire to create new universes that I can populate with my own ideas and passions, I’d say that’s what keeps bringing me back. I kind of need the release that creating comics allows for all my pent up frustrations and unfulfilled desires.

I feel like Al Pacino in The Godfather II… "I try to get out, but they keep pulling me back in!"


Where do you see yourself (or your comics) ten years from now?

CAT: I don’t really like to think about that sort of stuff anymore. It just seems to hinder what I’m doing now, you know? Thinking about the future. It’s constantly on my mind…Ten years ago, I had no idea I’d be where I am today, you know?

Ten years from now I’ll probably still be making comics, that much is certain. Hopefully I’ll have produced something great by then. What I’m really hoping is that I’ll have a lot more readers by then… enough to support working on comics full time. That’s what I’d REALLY like to accomplish in the next ten years.


A little while back you went into a sort of semi-retirement. What were some of the factors/pressures that lead to your decision?

CAT: There were many. There was a lot of pressure at the time and I just needed to distance myself from comics before I drowned. I’ve been trying to "break into" and "make a name for myself in" comics for the last 12 years of my life. Over the past five or six years, a lot of this went into high gear as this whole webcomics thing started to explode. I found myself in the middle of a movement I had no idea I’d ever be part of.

I always wanted to make it in comics, but had NO CLUE that the web would have so much to do with it. In some ways, I was bitter and a bit disappointed because I didn’t really want to get into comics this way. I wanted to make it as a print cartoonist and a lot of my aesthetic and design decisions used to be based on drawing/creating comics for print. The web changed all this and I found myself \"stuck\" in webcomics with no way of ever getting any other kind of legitimacy as an artist.

Add to that all the "politics" of the comics "industry" and you have the makings of a nervous breakdown of monumental proportions! I just needed to get away from it. I was tired of all the disappointment, disillusionment, and competition.


What brought you back?

CAT: Well, the two months I took off and didn’t draw helped me have an outside view of the whole situation. I realized that I still had a deep love for this medium, despite all the things that were discouraging me. I love comics and cartoons. I love sequential storytelling. I’ve loved them ever since I was six. No amount of politics, personal agendas, bitter jealousies, and backstabbing rivalries was gonna ever change this. I just had to stay away from it for a bit and recoup. I had to get back to the original reason I started doing this in the first place: my love of comics and my desire to add something to its rich history and tradition.


Just for fun now: If you could jam with anyone, who would it be?

CAT: Artistically I’d love to jam with a lot of people. Mostly doing colors over their inks. Especially someone like Jeff Smith or Scott Shaw! I’d LOVE LOVE LOVE to bring back Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew. That would be a childhood dream come true, believe it or not. I’d also love to do some Felix comics. That would be nice.

I always wanted to jam with Rick Geary, but I’ve already done that (for Serializer, but it was around the time of my hiatus and I kinda dropped the ball on that one…). I’d also love to work with McCloud if he’s ever interested. That would be fun.

Musically, I’d love to jam with: Willie Nelson, Lou Barlow, Elliot Smith, Wilco (!!), or Bob Dylan.


Why’d you pick up Whimville after your hiatus?

CAT: Well, I had started Whimville back when I lived in Austin (2000-2001). Originally it ran on and was the first real sustained narrative I’d ever done online (something that was a continuing story with two episodes a week). When I had to stop posting it ( went out of business) I promised a lot of people I’d get back to it eventually.

I had a lot of stops and starts after that, trying to pick it up again and changing the story several times. Finally, when I decided to make this year my year of the “big push” to do the best I can with online comics, I knew that it was time to do Whimville. The story’s been coming to me very easily ever since I made the decision and I think a lot of people are gonna be surprised and delighted with the results. Well, at least, I HOPE so, right? 😉


What is your writing process for Whimville?

CAT: Weeeeeeeeell… It’s kinda hard to explain. I once heard Jeff Smith describe how he writes Bone and it seems we have a very similar process. I have the “big story” pretty much scripted. Start to finish. The way I’ve scripted it out, it will take me about two years to tell the first big story arc. However, I’ve left myself a LOT of leeway and flexibility for the story to take some interesting turns and twists. These I’ll map out as I’m drawing each strip, scripting individual episodes as I go along but with the \"big story\" completely finished and kinda on the side as a reminder that eventually we wanna get somewhere.

Basically, I’m finally immersing myself in PROCESS again, and trying not to look at the the implications of the work as a whole too much while I’m building the story because that’s where I’ve stumbled in the past. I’m taking extra care with Whimville. Not only to make sure each installment is the best I can write and draw, but also to carefully stack the blocks of the structure of this story until I have a nicely constructed, intricately designed narrative. I know where it’s gonna end up when the two years are up, it’s getting there that’s half the fun of writing the story. I hope readers are ready for a wild ride!

BIll Duncan