Thor Jensen wandered the country on a Greyhound bus after 9/11, and recorded his journey in Red Eye, Black Eye, running on Serializer.net. He was kind enough to give us a great interview and a peek at his next work, for the first time anywhere.
1. This particular series has been compared to everything from TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY (less poodle, more Greyhound) to the CANTERBURY TALES, with its stories-within-a-story. What made you decide to tell such a story? Have any of your friends or people you've met objected to how you've portrayed them?
I realized when i started figuring out how to make something worthwhile out of this experience (art-wise) that 300 pages of uninterrupted me would get pretty boring. And since the people I was staying with were for the most part so gregarious and sharing with their tales, it would have been criminal not to include them. So they provide a dual purpose – they break up the narrative as well as providing a little background on the characters, something that I would be hard pressed to provide for the over 40 supporting players in the book.
2. Does your musical talent help your drawing/creative ability? What do you listen to while creating your strip? Has any of the music influenced you in your comic work?
"Talent" is not the word I would use as I am a hard-working amateur who does his best with limited skills. Perhaps "interest." I draw wherever I am, so it's hard to really narrow it down. Red Eye, Black Eye is pencilled to the sound of subway tracks, inked to shitty network reality TV, lettered to death metal, written to the sound of shaving in the shower.
3. I know you admire Yoshitomo Nara, Phillip Guston, Egon Schiele, and Max Ernst, among many others—but what artists have influenced you the most?
I have a serious problem in that my influences are passing and transparent, and each thing I work on bears their stamp more than is healthy. Red Eye, Black Eye is very John Porcellino, very Dylan Horrocks, artwise – simple, grimy figures. For my next thing, I've been looking at a lot of Jamie Hernandez, – so realistic, clean-lined, not a lot of clutter. In terms of fine artists, I've been living with this conceptual artist for the last few years and so I'm all into the Maurizio Cattelan, the Matthew Barney, the jerks and spuds. It changes, it changes.
4. You've admitted to admiring Joyce's ULYSSES, and I can see that—only the whole USA is the territory of RED EYE, BLACK EYE, rather than the Dublin of Joyce that Bloom wandered. What writers have influenced you the most?
Oddly enough, for all the influences that I blatantly Xerox in my art, the writers I like don't seem to show up that often. A lot of writers I like are very symbolic, dense, playful formalists like Witold Gombrowitz, Jose Saramago, et cetera, and my own work couldn't be further from that tradition. I also like Chester Himes, Raymond Carver and other taut, economical, low-level fictioneers.
5. How many sketchbooks are currently in your home? I know at least two, (the observational one of stuff you see, the inspirational one of stuff you imagine) besides the sketchbooks that you used to create RED EYE, BLACK EYE….but I imagine there are TONS more. When did you first keep a sketchbook?
I currently have three active sketchbooks – just about to finish a life drawing one, one for working out ideas, and one for quick comics. I am about to start an architecture and cars book because those are things I have trouble drawing – most especially cars. I think the amount of life drawing I've done over the past year has really helped my figures, and I hope that with steady labor I'll be able to draw anything, someday.
6. How hard is it to keep honest when doing an autobiographical comic? The temptation to make yourself look better must always be there….but from things like the "rape" comment in the crowded pizza place, the guy with the accordian, and other touches, I think you're forcing trying very hard to be honest. How difficult is that?
No creative work is completely honest, and there's liberties with the truth taken in RE, BE to be sure. But those liberties are in service to the story and hopefully they're not that noticeable. My character in the book is not, at heart, a comfortable person – there's always a feeling of being at odds, of not belonging – and I think that alienating the audience a little bit can help contribute to that feeling.
7. You've said this is really an examination of your inability to connect with people. Have you always felt that way about yourself, or is it an accentuated, post-9/11 disconnect with others? Do you feel yourself unusual in that regard, or is that just the human condition?
Writing this today, the day after the election, I don't feel all that connected with 51% of America. But, on the whole, I have always seen myself as an observer, as somebody who comments and records from the sidelines. As I age, I am trying to incorporate myself into humanity a bit, but this book is really about that struggle. Hopefully, not to spoil anything, the end kind of resolves this in a little meta-story tweak that I hope people will dig.
8. When bad things happen to you, do you ever think, "Well, at least that will make a good comic"? Do you go out of your way to do things that will make good comics…and if so, do you lose something in making your life what you can use, instead of what you enjoy? Do you record your life…or do you experience it?
I draw after the fact, usually, and once this book is done I think it will be a while before I do any major autobiographical work in the future. I very rarely can appreciate a disaster for material at the time it happens, but maybe in the long run I've grown a little more adept. Certainly watching the towers fall on 9/11 or hearing my girlfriend break up with me, comics were the farthest thing from my mind.
9.How do you like being part of Serializer.Net? What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing it as a webcomic, especially a subscription site where much is hidden from the casual reader?
I love Serializer. My deal is slightly different in that I am a "premium" strip – when we launched, myself, Nick Bertozzi, Chris Onstad and some others wanted to do something a little different with our strips, so it was kind of an experiment to not give the latest installment away for free like the others. But it has been financially very successful for me. Hopefully my next project will appear there as well, if they'll have me.
10. At one time you estimated that RED EYE, BLACK EYE would be finished by the end of the year. Does that still hold true? (You're up to El Paso on the return trip, but judging by the animated map I saw, there's a lot more to go.) I know you appear in many anthologies—do you have another major project in mind after this is done?
It will be done on Serializer in February, I think. My schedule has been erratic at late due to technical issues – scanner at work has been persnickety, et cetera. Once it is wrapped on SLZR, i go through and spend a few months correcting things I am not happy with & ship it off to a laundry list of publishers who have expressed interest (and some who haven't) along with marketing plan, assurances of profitability, et cetera. My next project will hopefully also be serialized on the site, as I really enjoy it – it's a full-color comics novella, around 60 pages, called "The Input, The Output." Here's a FIRST TIME ANYBODY'S EVER SEEN ANY OF IT preview of the first page!
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